Cocker Spaniel brings joy to prison inmates who are missing their pets during therapy visits

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Cocker Spaniel brings joy to prison inmates who are missing their pets during therapy visits

An English Cocker Spaniel has been bringing joy to a women’s prison during therapy visits for inmates who are missing their pets.

HR manager Joanne Fox, 46, brought Reilly, eight, into her family in February 2014 – buying him from a breeder in Harrogate, North Yorkshire on her 39th birthday, shortly after losing her dad Barry, 68, who died suddenly from fibrosis of the lungs and pneumonia.

Joanne, who lives in York with her pooch, said: “Because of the time when Reilly came into my life, we have a very special bond.

“I think losing dad so quickly may have really encouraged me to put Reilly forward as a therapy dog, because my mum Jennifer and I were obviously struggling.

“He just sort of kept us going at a very difficult time.

“He’s brought so much joy to me and my mum, who is 75, and I wanted to share that with other people.”

Reilly’s love for dressing up in different outfits prompted Joanne to enter him in local dog shows.

During one of these shows in September 2018 Joanne met some volunteers from Therapy Dogs Nationwide and put her pet forward for several assessments to analyze his temperament and determine if he would be a good fit.

She said: “They tested to make sure he didn’t react badly to noise, by dropping something quite loud.

“If they work with children, therapy dogs also get tested to make sure that they are okay with having their ears and tail touched or pulled.

“And they check the way they walk – that they walk nicely beside you and don’t pull.

“With Reilly, the volunteers always said he had the right temperament, because he’s very placid and loves people.”

In September 2021, Joanne was contacted about a potential placement for Reilly at Askham Grange Prison and Young Offenders Institution near York.

Joanne said: “I thought it sounded perfect as Reilly is a very big flirt. He does like the ladies.”

At the end of 2021, he visited a couple of times – something Joanne hopes will resume this year.

She said: “We soon discovered that a lot of prisoners really miss their dogs and some get quite emotional when they see Reilly.

“There was one lady at the prison who was frightened of animals and we’ve got her to the stage where she’ll stroke him now.

“Seeing that reaction in people is quite humbling.”

Reilly getting ready to go to Askham Grange Prison and Young Offender Institution

A prison officer supervised Joanne and Reilly’s visits and everyone had to follow a strict set of rules, including Reilly being kept on a lead and prisoners not being allowed to feed him.

Joanne continued: “The first time we went there, a lot of women came in and told us stories about their dogs.

“I could see one lady who was stroking him was quite upset.

“I asked, ‘Do you want to come and sit on the sofa?’ Then she told me how much she missed her dogs.

“While she was visibly upset, she said she really appreciated being able to meet Reilly.

“She had actually finished her sentence, so a couple of weeks later was going home to her dogs, and kept saying, ‘I’ve missed my dogs so this has really helped.’”

Another prisoner working in a café in the prison’s garden center used some of her allowance to buy a ‘pupcake’ for Reilly to take home and eat.

Joanne laughed: “There’s nothing that comes between Reilly and food. He’s been to the vet before now because he’s eaten my hair dye, or he’s eaten granola, which has raisins in it that are poisonous to dogs.

“He once got stuck in the kitchen cupboards, because I put child locks on them and he somehow managed to get in, but couldn’t get back out again.”

Reilly dressed up as a pumpkin for a visit to Askham Grange Prison and Young Offender Institution

Joanne Reilly dressed up in some of his favorite outfits during the prison visits, so he could show off his eye for canine couture.

She said: “He’s dressed up as a pumpkin and various different things.

“Whatever the occasion is, we try and dress him up.”

He also has an official uniform, which includes a collar, lead and bandana, emblazoned with the words Therapy Dogs Nationwide.

Joanne said: “The ladies love having their picture taken with him, either to keep or to send home.

“The photos get laminated for them, so they make lovely keepsakes.”

But like many performers, Reilly can be a bit of a doggy diva if he is not in the mood.

Joanne said: “I started posting photos of Reilly on Instagram over lockdown.

“He can give a grumpy look that makes everyone laugh. He just looks so unimpressed sometimes if I dress him up and he’s not in the mood, as if to say, ‘What have you done to me?’

“But he’s also a but of a poseur, so he’ll sit in his chair before I’ve even got out the stuff I want him to wear, as he knows he’s going to get his picture taken.”

Reilly at the Lodge

Reilly also visited a home for dementia sufferers – The Lodge in Heslington, York – twice a month from September 2019 to March 2020.

Joanne said: “We went into the room with a woman who was at the end of her life. She was drifting in and out of consciousness, but was aware of Reilly being there.

“He was sat on my knee and she lay there with a smile on her face, eyes closed, stroking his ears.

“We had another resident who swore a lot because of his dementia.

“He went from saying, ‘I don’t want to see that ****ing dog,’ to stroking Reilly and remembering about his own pet dogs.

“I got Reilly a bell with buttons on it to tell the date and time. We pressed that at the home and the same man would be laughing.”

Reilly and Joanne's mum, Jennifer Fox

Reilly always manages to raise a smile on even the darkest of days for Joanne and her family, but seeing him bring joy to everyone from prisoners to elderly dementia sufferers is particularly rewarding.

She said: “It is very humbling and, while it’s extremely sad to hear how much the women miss their pets, it’s very gratifying seeing how pleased they are to meet Reilly.”

* Therapy Dogs Nationwide is a national charity whose volunteers take their temperament assessed dogs into various establishments for the benefit of the local community. To find out more, go to: www.tdn.org.uk.

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