Image for How ‘husky therapy’ is helping offenders to tackle their mental health challenges

How ‘husky therapy’ is helping offenders to tackle their mental health challenges

In Wales, an adventure leisure company has partnered with the NHS to offer canine-led therapy to offenders on a mental health unit

In Wales, an adventure leisure company has partnered with the NHS to offer canine-led therapy to offenders on a mental health unit

It was by chance that specialist occupational therapist Ingrid Unsworth came to encounter Mynydd Sleddog Adventures’ husky rides. 

Originally intended as a gift voucher for her adult son who was unable to take it up, Unsworth took the ride herself in May 2022. She was left exhilarated – and inspired – by the experience. “I had gone through some challenging circumstances at home and came away in tears of joy,” Unsworth told Positive News. Soon after, she submitted a funding proposal to the NHS for a canine therapy programme to be delivered to the 22 patients in the medium security mental health unit where she’s worked for the past five years. 

They are men aged between 18 and 58 who have committed serious crimes, meaning they have been required to carry out their sentences in the unit rather than in standard prisons. Within months, in partnership with Mynydd Sleddog Adventures’ owner Joe Swiffen, a husky therapy programme was in place, designed to challenge the patients’ outlook on themselves and on life as they worked closely with their assigned dog.

Consisting of five weekly, two-hour sessions, it first involved 10 selected men from the unit doing husky hikes around the unit’s sizeable grounds, learning grooming, dog handling and communication as they went. 

“I found the sessions very therapeutic and enjoyed spending time learning and getting to know the dogs,” a 36-year-old patient who had been detained for over six years at the time of taking part told Unsworth and Swiffen at the end of the programme.

A 22-year-old patient, who had been detained for over three years, expressed an interest in doing more canine therapy “because it teaches me to learn”. Now in its second year, the programme includes a new feature – husky puppies. “It’s a step up,” said Swiffen. “The men look at the puppies coming into a new situation, [and consider] how they might feel. They then associate that with themselves and think about how they can help the puppies.”

husky therapy

From left to right Gary Williams, Joe Swiffen with Ulriken the dog, and Ingrid Unsworth with Drake the dog. Image: NHS Betsi Cadwaladr

The men are taught basic canine behaviour training, and play ‘puppy ping pong’, where they work in pairs to encourage the puppies to go back and forth between them with a treat. The husky therapy programme has now been accredited by Welsh qualifications body Agored Cymru, so it can be recognised by potential employers, supporting the men in considering a career in animal care upon their release. 

Unsworth is hopeful about receiving funding for the 2024 course. Meanwhile, Swiffen is partnering with a university to officially document the impact of the work. She wants to help more mental health facilities recognise the value in this form of therapy. “A medical approach is of course needed, but it’s the creative stuff that the patient engages in that makes a real difference to their lives,” she said. 

Main image: Marek Szturc

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