THERE is a visiting therapist at Burrswood Christian Hospital in
Kent who is known simply by her first name, Marnee. She ministers
to all the patients regardless of their condition, can sense by
instinct what is wrong and what might help, and, remarkably, can
achieve all that without speaking a word to the patient. And, by
the way, you can stroke her.
Marnee is a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog. On Sunday, she'll be
joined by a large number of other dogs in Burswood's beautiful
grounds and surrounding countryside for the hospital's third
sponsored walk, "Bark for Burrswood". It's a fund-raising event
both for the hospital and for PAT, which plays a valued part in the
holistic care of patients here.
The director of nursing at Burrswood, Suzanne Owen, describes
the hospital's approach as "a marriage of ministry and medicine".
It spe-cialises in intensive rehabilitation and respite,
post-operative, and palliative care.
She grew up locally, and came here with her church on a Quiet
Day. She recalls of that experience: "When I got out of the car, I
felt that God really said to me: 'You will work here one day.' And
I knew in my head that it would be as matron."
Fifteen years later, in 2002, and after working in several large
hospitals, she did exactly that.
It is still a very vocational place, she reflects of Burrswood,
widely acclaimed for its high levels of clinical and compassionate
care. "There is a tangible presence of God here. Those who
recognise that presence as the presence of God will be able to say
that; people who don't have faith - and we welcome patients who
don't - don't express it in a spiritual way, but say there's
something special here, or that it's really peaceful.
"I've heard it said, and believe it to be true, that Burrswood
is a 'thin' place, in the Celtic sense."
Medical, emotional, and spiritual care here is "blended,
plaited, woven together in the disciplines of the teams", she says:
easier to achieve in a 40-bed hospital than in a much bigger
PAT dogs have been part of that care for many years, and the
hospital is delighted that its principal visiting dog, Marnee, was
this year's winner of the HiLife PAT Dog of the Year at Crufts.
She and her owner, Noel Austin, have made 1000 visits over the
past 11 years to hospitals, care homes, and schools, and, most
happily of all, they say, to Burrswood.
"There's something very therapeutic for patients to be able to
interact with an animal," Ms Owen reflects. "There's something
about the way, when you are stroking a dog's head, that the dog
looks at you - it's a wordless communication. It verges on the
spiritual, because it touches the person deep within, in a way that
words and human interaction doesn't quite do."
NOEL AUSTIN concurs with that. She has had ten generations of
Golden Retrievers, and Marnee is her ninth home-bred PAT dog.
She believes that they are born to the work. "They can either do
it or they can't. It's an inborn temperament, an ability to be
patient while the handler talks to whoever it is. You can't put it
there," she says.
"When we bred puppies, we always earmarked the one we wanted.
We'd wrap it up in a blanket, and take it up to Crowborough
Hospital, where we'd play pass the parcel with the puppy. They
can't be registered that young, but we would just see how relaxed
it was, whether it could cope with the atmosphere, and with being
moved from one person to another. I must say, they all passed the
test, and stayed."
The extraordinary sensitivity of PAT dogs manifests itself in
many ways. Confronted with a wheelchair, Marnee will not position
herself face on to it, seeming to know by instinct that if the
occupant leans forward to stroke her, he or she will fall out of
Instead, the dog will shift her bottom so that she is sitting by
the side, and the person in the chair simply has to lean
"I have not taught her that," Noel says. "She knows what to do.
She knows when to push her nose in and say 'Come and stroke me';
and she knows when to sit there and say, 'You can just look at me.'
She senses when people are very ill, and, in other contexts, she
knows when people are afraid of dogs.
"She'll sit at their feet, look them straight in the eye, as if
to say: 'You are afraid of me, but in five minutes' time you will
be stroking me.' And they do."
AT BURRSWOOD, patients can specifically ask to see Marnee on the
day that she is in, and mostly everyone does. "Obviously, we have
our regulations and compliance and infection procedures, but nurses
will facilitate Noel and Marnee to go wherever they would be
appreciated," Ms Owen says. "We really like having them around.
They happily roam about, and don't intrude where it's not
For Ms Austin, that means never disturbing a sleeping patient;
so she'll tap on the door and open it very quietly. The dog will
also sense the situation. As Ms Austin engages the patient in
conversation, Marnee will first sit, and then edge closer and
"People will put their hand out, and you can see fingers
stroking in the fur. If they're particularly keen to see the dog,
and bend over and almost hug her, I'll ask 'Have you had dogs of
your own?' And out it will all come," Ms Austin says. "Every visit
is different: a person may be well one week, and not so well the
THE dog's presence is particularly valued in end-of-life care, a
journey with a patient that Ms Owen describes as a real privilege
and Ms Austin as a very special sort of ministry. "We would only go
into one of those rooms if they have a nurse with them; but if we
know the person has loved the dog, we will go in, and the nurse
will just lift the patient's hand and place it on the dog's head.
The dog remains motionless. You can see that there is absolute
feeling and reaction here," Ms Austin says.
She recalls one patient in Burrswood whom she knew very well,
and who was blind.
"We used to go and see her, and the dogs would put their heads
on the bed, so that she could feel where they were. And she would
put her hand out, and feel round their eyes and ears so that she
knew exactly which bit of the dog she was touching.
"I went up one day, and could see that this lady was very, very
ill. Marnee took one step inside the door, and lay down and refused
to go any further."
The dogs sense death, too. Ms Austin recalls a regular visit to
see a patient at Crowborough Hospital, when the dog, "Marnee's
great-great-great grandmother", refused to turn left to go as usual
to the room. "As I was struggling to get her up, the matron came
and said: 'I'm so sorry we weren't able to get in touch with you,
but Edna died an hour ago.' That dog knew."
Ms Austin visits care homes and hospices, and works with
dementia patients; but going to Burrswood is different from any of
her other visits, she says.
"Not everybody who goes there is a Christian, but there is a
special atmosphere, a feeling which you experience the minute you
go down the drive, and which is all over the grounds and the
hospital. The dogs feel it as well, and love going there - it's a
closely knit campus environment, all underpinned by prayer.
"Everything we do has to go towards the whole person, which is
the underlying principle of the establishment. It's ministry in a
very real sense."
PAT was founded in 1983, the vision of the late Lesley
Scott-Ordish, who recognised the level of trauma experienced by
elderly people who had to leave their pets behind when they went
into a resid-ential home.
The Royal College of Nursing endorsed the therapeutic effect of
patting a dog, and encouraged her to set up what began as Pat Dogs.
The book For Love of Dogs, pub-lished in 1997, the year
she died, chronicled 20 years of research into how and why animal
companionship can affect people's health and well-being, and she
described it as "a tribute to all the lovely dogs who comfort and
uncomplainingly love us".
The organisation, which make no charge for its services, and
relies on donations and fund-raising, has about 4500 active PAT
dogs and 108 PAT cats at work in the UK. They visit half a million
bedsides a year, and also work in schools, where children who
struggle with reading, and are reluctant to read to an adult, will
confidently read to a dog.
It isn't hard to see why the unconditional love offered by a dog
fits in so well with the Christian ethos of Burrswood and its
declared aim: "To keep the love of Christ at the heart of care, and
to be a sign of the Kingdom of God in a hurting world."
IT ALSO touches those who do not come to Burrswood specifically
for that ethos. Katie O'Brien, whose nomination helped win Marnee
her award, is a young woman whose extreme phobia of hospitals had
prevented her seeking treatment, and who was in severe pain and
distress when she came, on recommendation and very reluctantly, to
She wrote in that nomination: "This hospital seemed different,
as it came over as being very supportive and caring. . ." But
fearful of every passing footstep, she still remained deeply
anxious and sleepless, until one day when, "poking round the door
was a nose, then a big smile, and then beautiful big eyes which
were so delighted and happy to see me. Everything went into slow
motion as this gorgeous golden dog came closer and closer to me -
yes, to me!"
She goes on to describe Marnee's visits as the highlight of her
week, the presence that kept her going through the rough days in
partic-ular, and which enabled her to "once again feel some
happiness despite the pain, and to feel hope once again.
"Time would stop, pain would stop, as you felt her love and
gentleness. She was such a blessing to me as I would feel her
The hospital is held in prayer by many supporters, notably the
worldwide Burrswood Fellowship, some of whom pray every day for a
particular room or who follow the prayer diary issued every three
months by the hospital. It has res-ident Anglican chaplains
alongside ministry from Roman Catholic and Free Church
"A huge amount of healing is taking place right under our
noses," a Burrswood patient is quoted as saying. As Marnee
demonstrates, some of those noses are cold and wet.