Pawsitive impact: therapy dog Oliver gives vital support to local families thanks to student doctor

A therapy dog called Oliver is helping South Yorkshire children and families through some of the most difficult times imaginable, thanks to the help of a University of Sheffield student doctor.

Image shows Emily with Oliver/ Oliver bounding through a field
  • Student doctor Emily Gaskin helped bring labrador/retriever cross Oliver to local charity HOPE South Yorkshire Fire, Road and Water-related Trauma Support for Families during her four-week Social Accountability Placement in December 2021.
  • Oliver now supports children and families who are bereaved or affected by traumatic events such as road traffic collisions, fires or drowning.
  • He has already had a profound impact, providing furry and calm support to families going through some of the most difficult times imaginable.

A therapy dog called Oliver is helping South Yorkshire children and families through some of the most difficult times imaginable, thanks to the help of a University of Sheffield student doctor.

Oliver’s long journey to Sheffield began when fifth year medical student Emily Gaskin was on her four-week Social Accountability Placement with the local charity. The placements, introduced in 2015, give students practical learning experience away from clinical settings, while giving them a chance to serve our local community.

Emily found a placement at HOPE South Yorkshire Trauma Support, a charity supporting people bereaved or affected by traumatic events such as road traffic collisions, fires or drowning. Or through the witnessing of traumatic incidents. 

Whilst on the placement, a casual discussion about Emily’s family’s experience in training hearing dogs for deaf people inspired a new mission for the student: helping to find HOPE South Yorkshire an emotional support dog.

“We really weren't sure what was available. It’s quite a big thing in America but not so much here, at least when it comes to therapy or emotional support dogs,” said Emily

“I started off by sending emails to various places who worked with support dogs, not really expecting a reply.”

Before long, a Fife-based charity called Oliver’s Army Assistance Dogs, which provides training for assistance and therapy dogs, answered the call. While the request was over and above the charity’s ordinary remit, they were very eager to help such an amazing cause.

Oliver’s Army even managed to secure funding for a dog for HOPE South Yorkshire, something incredibly helpful to a charity reliant on fundraising. All they asked in return is that, if they didn’t mind, they name the dog Oliver.

Oliver in a pool

Around 8 weeks later, labrador/retriever cross Oliver arrived in Sheffield and his new owner (Charity Operations Manager, Maryann) was put in touch with specialist trainers to prepare him for his new role. His training will continue through various levels, all alongside his important new role supporting local children and families.

Now a permanent and much-loved resident, Oliver has already had a profound impact. Attending everything from home visits to one-to-ones and group sessions, Oliver has quickly become an invaluable member of the team.

“The children and families supported by HOPE South Yorkshire have been through so much and I think that just having Oliver there is uplifting for them,” said Emily.

“Those who have been through a traumatic experience, particularly children, can often find it difficult to express what they’re feeling so having an animal they can talk to and play with is really beneficial.

“It could be something as simple as sitting on their lap and letting them stroke him, although this is getting trickier as he’s so big now!

“The interactions he has are just amazing. Dogs are so intuitive, and he seems to know who perhaps needs him a bit more than others.”

Oliver ready for work

HOPE South Yorkshire Trauma Support Charity Operations Manager, Maryann, said: “Oliver has quickly become an integral part of the support offered to those coming to HOPE South Yorkshire Trauma support. 

“He provides furry, calm support to individuals and families experiencing their difficult, emotional and traumatic grief journey. Now if we go anywhere, people actually ask for Oliver, in the knowledge that the comfort he can offer will be a benefit to them. He’s such a valuable member of the HOPE team.”

Dr Joanne Thompson, the academic lead for University of Sheffield community placements for student doctors, said: “HOPE is an amazing local charity offering a range of support for families in the direct aftermath of trauma when families often have nowhere else to turn.

“It’s a privilege to work with HOPE through our social accountability placements, and we’re absolutely delighted that Oliver has become such an integral part of the HOPE family.

“Emily’s support in bringing Oliver to Sheffield offers a wonderful example of what can be achieved through our placements in local community-based organisations.

“Not only does it give our students invaluable experience working with community organisations, it also provides a vital opportunity for local people to be involved in the education of future doctors.”

Four students laughing while sat at a bench, outside the Students' Union

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