Therapy dog Jasper is to be given a special award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the House of Lords.

Six-year-old cockapoo Jasper, along with owner David Anderson, from Preston, a hospital chaplain and counsellor, works with East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust to support more than 9,000 staff across the Trust’s acute and community hospitals, including Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital and Burnley General Teaching Hospital.

Before the pandemic Jasper, who completed a 10-week training programme to work in a busy ward environment, had accompanied David to visit patients undergoing end of life care, as well as those suffering a mental health crisis. He has also worked with physiotherapists assisting patients affected by strokes, with patients encouraged to stroke Jasper as part of their therapy.

When Covid-19 hit Blackburn was one of the worst affected areas in the country and Jasper was no longer able to visit the wards and initially had to stay at home, with David carrying out counselling sessions for end of life patients and goodbye calls for family members via Zoom.

Great British Life: Jasper with some of the nurses who have enjoyed his companyJasper with some of the nurses who have enjoyed his company (Image: East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust)

But when the huge strain on staff working through the darkest days of the pandemic became apparent, David realised there was a need for Jasper, as well as himself, to provide in-person support to hospital staff.

David, 46, set up opportunities for them to spend time with Jasper either one on one or in small groups through his ‘Conversations with Jasper’ sessions which proved to be hugely popular, with more than 1,000 staff taking part.

Jasper spends two or three days a week in the Trust’s hospitals, supporting staff, and he is now allowed to visit children’s wards too after completing training to support younger patients.

David said: ‘Jasper’s role has always been to make people smile and feel better and during the peak of the pandemic, when everyone was giving so much, sometimes staff just needed to have a cuddle with Jasper, have a cry and go back to the wards. There is no judgement with a dog, and staff can show their emotions with him, take him out for a walk, or just sit quietly with him and reflect.

‘Many traumatised staff feel they can’t always share all the thoughts and feelings of working in the pandemic with family members, but they have got a lot from these sessions and many find it easier to talk while stroking Jasper. Lots of people are still struggling and all of us here will carry the scars of working through Covid forever, so it is important we offer this support.’

Great British Life: Staff across the NHS have appreciated Jasper's companyStaff across the NHS have appreciated Jasper's company (Image: East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust)

James Sawyer, the UK Director of IFAW, said: ‘Jasper is an amazing dog and his work with David and hospital staff is a fantastic example of the positive relationships between animals and humans. When we heard about the difference Jasper was making to the lives of our dedicated NHS staff working during such a challenging time we knew he would be a very deserving winner of IFAW’s Animal of the Year Award.’

During the pandemic Jasper received East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust ‘Employee of the month’ accolade for the comfort he had brought to staff and patients, while David received a British Empire Medal for his dedication and hard work supporting patients and staff. Jasper will receive his award at IFAW’s prestigious Animal Action Awards event at the House of Lords on October 12, 2021.