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How Newmarket-based charity Our Special Friends helps bring the power of animal companionship to vulnerable people

When you are isolated by frailty, vulnerability, or serious health problems the companionship of a pet can be one of the few bright spots in your life.

But when things get tough, or a crisis strikes, that crucial relationship can be threatened causing even more distress.

Finding sympathetic help can be a lifeline - and that is the role of a pioneering Suffolk charity which focuses on promoting, preserving and providing the power of animal companionship.

Joyce with Archie, the dog found for her by Our Special Friends
Joyce with Archie, the dog found for her by Our Special Friends

Our Special Friends, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its registration this year, supports both people and animals, and the relationship between them - intervening in what could be heartbreaking situations.

The innovative charity, that operates in the west and centre of Suffolk and part of east Cambridgeshire, strives not just to provide its own services but to encourage others to take a similar approach,

It was founded by Bin (short for Belinda) Johnston who when working as a vet soon realised her job could be as much about supporting the owners as the pets.

Our Special Friends founder Bin Johnston (left) with (L-R) animal companionship practitioner Gemma Reid, volunteer support manager Frances Day, and volunteer Lucie Grant, and Bin's dog Otto.
Our Special Friends founder Bin Johnston (left) with (L-R) animal companionship practitioner Gemma Reid, volunteer support manager Frances Day, and volunteer Lucie Grant, and Bin's dog Otto.

Now chief executive and lead practitioner, she started the project in a very small way from her home in Higham, then found a few volunteers to help her.

The charity now has a team of staff, trustees and more than 100 volunteers. So far they have helped out in around 2.500 cases with a vast range of different needs.

“We chose not to restrict the support we were giving because we wanted to do what people needed,” said Bin. “I’ve always been very interested in how important animal friends are to people.”

Client Sheila being visited by Izzy who belongs to OSF volunteer Ruth
Client Sheila being visited by Izzy who belongs to OSF volunteer Ruth

Her approach to life and work has been influenced by two family tragedies. Her mother died, aged 37, when she was 10 years old and she found consolation in her cat, dog and ponies.

Then the year before she qualified as a vet her father took his own life. “It changed my career path,” she says. Bin practised in London. “I saw a lot of cases where it was as important to support the person as their pet, there was hidden vulnerability.

She moved to Suffolk when she married, and took time out from her career to be with her family. Volunteering for Cruse Bereavement Support and the Samaritans, and doing person-centred counselling, she was also acutely aware of the pain people could suffer from losing a pet.

Some of the OSF team at a Dog Day event
Some of the OSF team at a Dog Day event

It led to her coaching the veterinary profession on how important it was to support people through loss, either due to rehoming or euthanasia,

“There was a helpline on pet bereavement but it wasn’t being used and people were very reluctant - I wanted to destigmatise grief.

“Then I realised all the conversations I was having in the community, so 12 years ago I started looking for people who were hidden away in the community where the power of animal companionship was so important to people with frailty or socially isolated..”

Client Ann with Cora, one of OSF’s few visiting cats
Client Ann with Cora, one of OSF’s few visiting cats

Our Special Friends (OSF) had a base at the Animal Health Trust near Newmarket until it closed in 2020, and carried on in lockdown by working remotely.

Three years ago it moved to rented space at the British Racing School in Newmarket. “It’s a wonderful place for the office to be,” said Bin.

“What OSF is doing is innovative but comes with challenges. A case will come in referred to us by anyone, people themselves, family, friends, vets. All our services are free.”

They all aim to make it possible for people to keep enjoying the companionship of animals which is known to boost mental health and wellbeing.

Beryl and Leonard enjoy a visit from Molly
Beryl and Leonard enjoy a visit from Molly

Services include fostering to reunite, and home visits by volunteers with their dogs - or very occasionally cats - to people who no longer have a pet.

“Other organisations go mainly into institutions. Our dogs aren’t PAT (Pets as Therapy) dogs, just volunteers with lovely friendly dogs.

“We also do dog walking and accompanied dog walking if the owner can get out but is not comfortable with doing it on their own, or has dementia.

“I’ve developed a new role of animal companionship practitioner - people with veterinary knowledge plus social care.

“There are so many critical situations that are completely underestimated. In times of crisis we are forcing them to give up what is helping them.

“That’s why a lot of people are homeless, because they won’t give up their animal companions. There is this gap people are falling into.

“We are constantly trying to influence others to do what we do. For instance Dogs Trust and Cats Protection now do fostering to reunite for domestic abuse in this area because we asked them to.

“We provide an Important network of support, and a care plan. Anyone could have a pet as long as there is a support network to safeguard the welfare of the animal.

“We are about helping people to find solutions to problems, and also look at whether the relationship is mutually beneficial. We had an owner with OCD whose cat was causing problems, so the cat was rehomed with someone needing a companion.

“We are all about prevention and early intervention, so that if they have a problem we can immediately step in. We deal with difficult situations quickly. It is a constant struggle between need and resources.

“If someone is going through a mental health crisis or dementia that animal may be very important to them and may be looking after that animal beautifully, but not looking after themselves.

“OSF says to people who are frightened about what will happen to their pet, we will keep him safe.”

The staff and volunteers at Our Special Friends are a close-knit team who work closely together. Gemma Reid - alongside Bin - is one of the charity’s two animal companionship practitioners.

She joined in 2021 after a long career as a vet nurse including 17 years at the Animal Health Trust.

Calls about referrals are taken at the office and decisions made about what help is needed. Then usually a volunteer will visit.

Gemma stresses the work they do is not always “cosy”. “Sometimes we find owners living in real deprivation and squalid conditions. We need people who can cope with difficult situations.

“Our volunteers are the eyes and ears who can identify the need for additional support and they feed it back so we can find the right people to help. Vulnerable people still living at home are often off a lot of people’s radar.

Volunteer support manager Frances Day also joined in 2021 when the charity was striving to rebuild relationships with its unpaid helpers after Covid.

The former YMCA youth work manager had just got her first puppy, and was delighted to be able to combine work with her love of animals.

She looks after those already volunteering - 130 on the books and around 100 active at any one time - as well as working to recruit and train more.

“Some have been with us for more than 10 years - we have some very committed volunteers who spend a lot of time with us,” said Frances.

Foster carers are the most urgently needed at the moment - mostly for dogs and cats but they once had to find a temporary home for a tortoise.

Volunteers in a wide range of roles are crucial. One of the most active is Lucie Grant, who is trained in veterinary nursing and dog behaviour. She got involved after her daughter looked into volunteering for OSF for her Duke of Edinburgh Award.

Lucie finds her dog behaviour experience invaluable. “The behaviour issue is huge - with dog aggression the underlying cause is often pain,” she says.

Our Special Friends helps people of any age, with any vulnerability, and any species of pet - staying with them through the ups and downs and giving support as needed. Often clients are older people who are struggling to care for their animals on their own.

Joyce was 89 when she approached OSF at an event at a GP surgery. She had been through a terrible time losing her husband and only son in the space of three months.

As a lifelong dog lover, she was keen to have a small dog to keep her company, and was matched with Taz, who needed to be rehomed from another client.

Joyce adored Taz who became a friend who was always by her side and guarded her and the house.

But after three happy years he fell ill and was euthanised to prevent further suffering. While Joyce decided if she wanted another permanent canine companion she had visits from volunteer Christina and her dog Griffie, then Celia and Jonathan and their dogs Bilbo and Digby,

Six months later Joyce, then aged 94, adopted Archie, a Jack Russell cross who had not been coping with the other dogs and cats in his home. He soon settled in with support from neighbours who take him for walks.

He is popular when he goes with Joyce to her weekly lunch club, and with residents in the care home where she visits a friend.

Volunteer Celia said: “A more perfect outcome for this incredibly resilient lady could bot have been achieved,”

Another client is Sharon (not her real name) who had a 30 year history of addiction. She first asked OSF for help when her much-loved dog needed medication.

After he died she found life empty without an animal companion and got a puppy, but struggled with his unruly behaviour.

She was then offered the chance of going into rehab, but for OSF finding foster care for the pup was hard as at five months old he was already enormous, very powerful, and had no boundaries.

Telling Sharon’s story, volunteer Lucie who has been supporting her says at that point rehoming was considered, but Sharon had moved from a town to a village with no public transport and because of the isolation wavered over giving him up.

Then a crisis struck and she had to go into hospital. “We had to take the dog. We put him in kennels but it didn’t really work,” says Bin. “Then Gemma really pulled it out of the bag and found a fosterer.

“When Sharon came out of hospital she was adamant she wanted him back but within 24 hours she couldn’t cope. There is a tipping point in cases where it isn’t going to be beneficial.”

A potential new permanent home was found for the pup. He was introduced to the family’s other dogs, and Lucie’s video of the meeting reassured Sharon it was the right thing to do.

After a successful spell in rehab, she returned home and through OSF found a new animal friend - a smaller dog more suitable for her needs.

He had been living with other dogs who bullied him, and bonded with her from their first meeting. The match has worked for both of them.

It costs around £300,000 a year to run the charity. Funding comes from trusts, grants including from local councils, and individual donations. They are partnered with Sudbury Pets at Home who have raised money for them.

But often potential donors prefer to give to a specific project. “I say, we are the project, what we do is innovative,” says Bin. “We have dealt with 2,500 cases so far but the challenge is showing our impact.

“We need to change and recognise that animal companionship is an important way of helping people but they do need support when times are difficult.

“One person we help hasn’t been out of his home in more than three years. Another was living without electricity or water for 12 years.

“People need to trust people who have a love of animals … we can establish trusting relationships.

“What we are doing here is not fluffy stuff. It could be people with severe mental illness. We take animals in to allow people to be sectioned.

“We want what we have learned to be adopted by others. We want human-centred organisations to have an element that is animal-centred and vice versa.

“Veterinary social care is something that is done in the States and that’s needed over here.”

It costs around £300,000 a year to run the charity. Funding comes from trusts, grants including from local councils, and individual donations.

They are West Suffolk Council chair Roger Dicker’s charity of the year, and are partnered with Sudbury Pets at Home who have raised money for them.

“We have had support from West Suffolk, Mid Suffolk and Babergh Councils. We want to say a massive thank you to everybody who supports us.”

For more information go online to ourspecialfriends.org