14 September 2020

Dog walking for wellbeing

In 2019, UEA teamed up with dog walking business Tom and Toto to run wellbeing dog walks on campus – and this year they’re back. Founder Sarah Wright writes about her business and the benefits of dog walking.

I have always had a love of animals and firmly believe in the benefits of spending time with them. Before I set up Tom and Toto I trained and worked as a safari guide in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I then spent a further three years working as a carnivore keeper at Woburn Safari Park looking after wolves, black bears, lions, and tigers before returning home to Norfolk seven years ago and setting up Tom and Toto so I could continue to care for and train animals.

My first months were spent walking dogs in the fields by myself but over time I have built up a nine-person strong team, who walk around 200 dogs a week. I am very proud of what the company has achieved especially having won the Dog Friendly Awards 2018 and 2019 for the UK’s best dog walking service. Hopefully this year will be a hat-trick at the awards!

When UEA contacted me about the idea of bringing dogs to meet the students I thought it was a brilliant idea. We know first-hand the positive effect dogs have on our wellbeing. Time with animals, particularly dogs, can have a hugely positive impact on wellbeing. Walking dogs means exercise, fresh air, connecting with nature – all physically nurturing activities. Research has also shown the impact the companionship of a dog can have on our daily emotional and psychological stressors.

Before agreeing to the partnership with UEA we spoke at length with our dog owners and selected dogs that were most suited to the programme. It’s important that the dogs also enjoy their time with the students; they love the fuss and attention, so it’s win win. The owners of our wellbeing dogs are immensely proud of their dogs, and some joke about how funny it is that their dogs have a job. Last year the 25 dogs who had attended wellbeing walks received their honorary ‘Dogrees’ from the UEA and many of their owners attended the ceremony. It was a very special occasion.

We have gathered a lot of feedback from wellbeing walks and visits, and over 90% of all the participants saying the experience has helped them to relax, feel good, connect with others and think more clearly. A huge majority also said that they would not have taken a break if they hadn’t had the opportunity to meet our dogs. The students last year loved it, with 99% saying the walks made them feel cheerful. Many were far from home for the first time, missing both family and pets, and felt the group walks helped them avoid isolation. Others felt stressed about exams and saw the dogs as a good excuse to take a healthy break from revising.

Since the UEA walks began, we have extended our wellbeing work to bring the dogs to many other businesses, schools, and enterprise festivals across Norfolk. We work hard and walk miles each day with the dogs - we definitely don’t need gym memberships - and there have been occasions during winter where one of us has become stuck in mud or slid right into Whitlingham Broad. It’s not the most glamorous job, but it is one of the most rewarding.

 

UEA first partnered with Tom and Toto in 2019 to offer dog walking sessions for students and , despite the pandemic, have recently relaunched the programme due to popular demand. To find out more about the initiative, including information on new COVID-19 guidelines, visit: https://ueadifferent.com/ents/event/11378/

Read about Student Wellbeing