FEATURE: Purdy is more than a woman’s best friend
The bond between them is plain to see. As Karen Pyke lifts her dog Purdy onto her shoulder the black button eyes gaze into her face with complete devotion.
But when she rests her cheek against Purdy’s silky soft coat it is far more than just a simple loving gesture.
The tiny dog’s comforting presence can be the difference between her coping with life, and not.
For more than 20 years ex-nurse Karen has battled depression.
It forced her eventually to give up the career she adored.
She struggled through each day needing high doses of medication and constant support from her family.
But with the arrival of Purdy two years ago things began to change.
And although she has had to accept she will never work as a nurse again she is beginning to rebuild her life.
“I never would have thought it possible that an animal could give so much support. She has opened up my world again,” says Karen, 50, who lives in Stowmarket with her husband Jules and stepson Leon, 12.
Now she has teamed up with the Suffolk-wide charity Our Special Friends to fight for pets like Purdy to given the same status as assistance animals such as guide dogs.
The charity based at Higham near Bury St Edmunds was set up by vet Belinda Johnston to help vulnerable people benefit from the companionship of animals.
Together, they are mapping out a plan of action to win official recognition for dogs that give emotional support to people suffering mental ill health.
Karen can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a nurse.
She grew up in Clare, where parents Brian and Sheila Aldous kept the village post office, and her dad was sub-officer at the village fire station.
“My mum made me a nurse’s uniform, and if anyone in the family wasn’t well I’d look after them,” she says.
She fulfilled her dream in 1989 by qualifying as a nurse specialising in caring for people with learning disabilities.
Later she took a job at the Stourmead home in Kedington. But in 2008 pressure of work led to a condition known as burnout.
“I had given all I had to give. I had nothing left. It left me with severe anxiety. I don’t believe I have ever truly recovered from it,” she says.
She took a year off, then moved into dementia care. But her health problems were getting worse.
“I managed to pretty much cover up what was going on and had everyone fooled that everything was fine, including me to a certain degree. “But everything was welling up underneath. I started to lose confidence in my abilities as a nurse.”
Three years ago she realised she could not carry on. “The last day I managed to work was November 4th 2012, the last time I was able to practice as a nurse ... not a date I shall forget.
“I have since come off the nursing register. I know I will never make it back. That still hurts. I never wanted to be anything else.”
Karen always loved dogs but while she was working resisted the urge to get one.
“Looking after a dog didn’t fit with a nurse’s working hours, but once I retired it seemed an ideal time.
“Because of my health problems I had to get one that didn’t need outdoor exercise every day.
“We found Purdy – a pomeranian/bichon frise cross – on Facebook.”
The lovable ball of fluff was never expected to be anything more than a family pet.
But gradually Karen began to realise when Purdy was with her she felt better and could be less dependent on others.
She could venture out of the house with just her pet for company. Now they go together to the shops, and medical appointments.
And she has been able to cut the medication for her depression down to just one drug which also helps her sleep.
Both her doctor and clinical link worker have seen the benefits and written letters supporting her campaign.
“I had no idea of the massive impact Purdy would have on my life,” Karen says. “This little bundle of fluff needed me to exercise her, to feed her, to play with her, to train her.
“She needed me to be there for her, but boy did she repay me tenfold. I found that I was able to conquer some of my own demons when I needed to take her out.
“I’ve even become treasurer of the dolls’ house group we attend, taking on responsibility I would never have thought possible.
“Purdy has had no special training. she has developed the role for herself. She has made it evident she is very in tune with how I am feeling, and that gives me confidence to go out.
“If we’re out and I’m getting really anxious she will ask to be picked up. I can cuddle her and get reassurance – concentrate on her and block everything else out.
“And if I’m feeling uncomfortable when we are walking she zig-zags in front of me to protect my personal space.
“At home she answers the door with me, and when I make a phone call I have her on my lap.”
Karen and Purdy are becoming a familiar sight around their home town – especially when Purdy is in her bright red ‘support dog’ wheeled carrier, nicknamed The Porsche.
But because she is not officially recognised as an assistance dog Karen has to ask for permission before she can go into shops and public buildings.
“I have permission now to take her into several shops. She is allowed to come with me to the health centre and stayed with me in hospital when I had an operation for my sciatica,” she said.
“She has a special wheeled carrier because I feel people might prefer her not to walk on the floor, and in supermarkets she could find all the feet and trolleys intimidating.
“We have been very lucky because we actually have no rights at all.
“But I’m also lucky that I have a very supportive husband and family. I think about the people in similar circumstances who don’t.
“It seems very unfair that one of the most vulnerable groups are left in this situation. They have to leave their dogs at home at the most stressful times when they really need them.”
Karen trawled the internet looking for charities that supply assistance dogs. But none helped adults with mental health problems.
“I phoned them all,” she says. “I got very demoralised and was going to quit. Then I thought no, this isn’t just for me now.
“To an extent I have always had to fight for the people I’ve cared for, because they couldn’t fight for themselves. Now I’m doing it again.”
Karen and Belinda met at the Suffolk Dog Day 2014. “As soon as I heard her story I was keen to help her,” said Belinda.
“Our campaign is to get recognition, registration and access parity for dogs that give their owners emotional support, when there is clear evidence of need and therapeutic value.
“There are many cases where pet dogs are providing psychosocial support resulting in improved health and wellbeing, but because they are not registered as ‘assistance dogs’ they are not allowed access into the same public places as assistance dogs.
“They are not able to be registered as they are not trained to do practical tasks.
“There are many people who are experiencing mental ill health and their companion animals are helping them to cope.
“We believe these pet dogs should be recognised and registered in cases where there is documented evidence of need and tangible benefit from two health professionals.”
The dog’s health, training and behaviour standards would also need to be checked.
Belinda has been in contact with Karen’s MP Jo Churchill, and the Department of Health to seek their support.
“Our Special Friends will continue to raise awareness and to help Karen,” said Belinda.
“Together we have identified a goal – for her to be able to take Purdy to Crufts as her emotional support dog.”
Karen is also planning for her own devoted four-legged friend to help her to help others, too.
“A new old people’s home has opened close to where we live, and I’m going to take Purdy in as a PAT dog through Our Special Friends. Even though I’m not nursing any more I can be back in that environment, and sit with people and give them some special time.
“I can still help them in a different way.”