We spoke to Suzanne Ruby, a BA (Hons) Psychology graduate from the University of Stirling. As Operations Manager at Paws for Progress, Suzanne told us how she got involved with a career in dog-assisted therapy.
What brought you to Stirling?
I moved to Montrose from the South of England when I was 17, spending my last year of school in Scotland. Although I was devastated to leave my friends, in retrospect I wouldn’t change a thing as I completely fell in love with Scotland. Plus the move led me to apply to the University of Stirling, which led me to Paws for Progress!
I had a particular interest in mental health and enjoyed Psychology at school, so I decided to study it at university. When I came to an open day at Stirling I knew it was the place for me. I loved the way that you are surrounded by nature on campus. As an animal lover, seeing all the swans, rabbits and squirrels around the loch really sold me!
It’s been over 11 years since I first walked around the loch on my open day (slightly terrifying that it’s been so long…!) but I’m still not tired of wandering around the beautiful campus on a lunch break with my dog, Phoebe, by my side.
When did you first get involved with Paws for Progress?
In my final undergraduate year I focused on animal behaviour and welfare, writing my dissertation on the Capuchin Monkeys at Edinburgh Zoo. My dissertation supervisor, the incredible Dr Hannah Buchanan-Smith, also happened to be one of the supervisors of Rebecca Leonardi’s PhD.
In partnership with the Scottish Prison Service at HMP & YOI Polmont, Rebecca had developed the UK’s first prison-based rescue dog training programme. She was evaluating the impact that the programme had for both the rescue dogs and the young people. To make sure that this incredible work was sustained beyond the PhD, “Paws for Progress” had recently registered as a Community Interest Company.
When Hannah mentioned that Paws for Progress were looking for a research assistant, I jumped at the chance! This was the perfect combination of my interest in Psychology and my passion for animal welfare.
Having worked as a Research Assistant after graduating, I was successful in securing an internship with the organisation. This eventually led to me stepping up into the role of Operations Manager at Paws for Progress. 6 years on, here we are!
Can you tell us about what Paws for Progress does?
Paws for Progress is a pioneering organisation dedicated to improving the lives of both people and dogs. We do this by providing educational, therapeutic and interactive dog-assisted services for people in prison and community settings. As providers of the UK’s first prison-based rescue dog training programme, we specialise in working with young people involved in the criminal justice system, or at risk of offending behaviour.
Our mission is to improve the lives and futures of vulnerable people and dogs in Scotland. We pride ourselves on delivering high-quality services which are client-centred, asset-focused, and evidence-based. We’re committed to effective partnership working and generating a legacy of shared learning to inform best practice and maximise the impact of our activities.
Our beneficiaries experience a host of positive outcomes through engaging with our services. We focus on building resilience and improving mental health. We also develop employability skills, engage in education to achieve qualifications, and building positive relationships with peers, staff, and family. This is achieved by working with our dogs to learn about dog training and care, building empathy, and improving animal welfare.
What makes a good Ambassadog?
A good Ambassadog is a dog who thrives on meeting new people, loves interacting and is confident going into different settings. All our Ambassadogs have their own unique personalities and strengths, and we tailor their sessions to suit them. Some of the Ambassadogs love to take part in super interactive training activities, such as Phoenix. Others enjoy relaxing with our students as a companion whilst they are learning, like Rita!
The most important thing is that the dogs actively enjoy taking part in the sessions. It’s not good enough for us if the dogs are merely tolerating the sessions, we want them to benefit too.
Ambassadogs are accompanied by a staff member who knows them and makes sure that they’re happy and comfortable. All dogs have an annual health assessment (or more regularly if required) from our sponsors at Broadleys Veterinary Hospital. The dogs are kept are up-to-date with their preventative healthcare treatment. They also have regular behaviour assessments to make sure that they are thriving in the activities that they take part in.
How many Ambassadogs do you work with?
We have 6 wonderful Ambassadogs on the team at the moment. They were rescue dogs before being adopted into their families. They are pet dogs first and foremost who live with our staff and volunteers. The one exception is Bravehound Paisley, who is an assistance dog in training.
How did Covid impact your delivery?
The last year has been tough for everyone. Our services are so highly interactive with the dogs and this is what makes our programmes so unique and effective. It’s just not possible to replicate that when you can’t deliver services in person. Finding alternatives was the greatest challenge during the first lockdown, when we were unable to access the prison in person.
The positive, supportive relationships that our team had built with our beneficiaries shone through during this period. We were able to maintain a connection and provide support remotely through the “emailaprisoner” system. This involved sending printed educational materials and regular newsletters with updates on and photos of the dogs. This all helped our beneficiaries through a really dark time.
COVID has been so isolating and damaging on mental health, and these issues have been exacerbated in the prison setting. It was essential that we returned to in-person delivery as soon as it was safe to do so. Due to our focus on improving mental health, we were one of the first external organisations to return to HMP & YOI Polmont in July 2020. We’ve adapted our services to work with smaller groups, minimise footfall and follow a strict hygiene protocol. In response to student feedback, we developed new programmes with an even stronger focus on improving well-being, mental health, and reducing isolation.
Why is Paws for Progress needed?
Paws for Progress is needed now more than ever before. The vulnerable people that we work with were already facing barriers and experiencing challenges before COVID. They need our support now more than ever to recover from the negative impact of the pandemic on their mental health. The pandemic has also sparked a dog welfare crisis, with increases in reported behavioural issues and a huge rise in the illegal puppy trade. Dog rescue organisations are also bracing themselves for a wave of dog relinquishments following the pandemic.
We’re really fortunate to have been able to adapt to continue supporting our beneficiaries during the pandemic. We’ve continued to develop as an organisation but I’m sure the fallout from COVID will be affecting the communities that we work with for a long time to come.
The impact that Paws makes on the prison community and young people with educational challenges is amazing! Can you share some of your most memorable moments?
I’ll always remember one of the first children that we worked with when we branched out from our prison-based work into the community.
He was terrified of dogs and had almost been hit by traffic on multiple occasions because he ran into the road to get away from a dog being walked past him on the pavement! He was determined to understand and empathise with dogs rather than fear them.
At the first session, to help him feel safe, we helped him barricade himself in the corner behind a wall of chairs to keep his distance from the dogs. His progress week by week was incredible. He would voluntarily set himself a new target each week, such as “I’ll throw Mojo a treat”, or “This week I’ll hold Bonnie’s lead…”
By the end of the course, his feelings towards dogs had completely changed! His carer attended the final session with him. He was so proud to introduce them to the dogs and to get a photo with the Ambassadogs. One on his knee, surrounded by the others, and with a HUGE smile in his face! I’ll never forget how he transformed during his time working with us.
How can people find out more about your work?
We could not do our great work without the support of our volunteers. They who support us in areas such as finance, funding, community fundraising, communications, HR and impact measurement. If you’re interested in volunteering in these areas, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are very grateful for any support you can offer.