“All you can hear is the water and the dogs paddling. That’s it, there’s nothing else,” said student paramedic Abigail Walker after emerging from Stanton lakes in Leicestershire, where she had been swimming with three Newfoundland dogs. “Until you’ve done it, I don’t think you realise how calming it is.”
It was her first time trying a type of emotional therapy pioneered by Pete Lewin, a paramedic who travels the country helping emergency services staff deal with trauma with the help of his pack of canines.
Earlier this year, Lewin won the Kennel Club hero dog award at Crufts for his work to help people with their emotional wellbeing, thought to be the only therapy of this type in the world.
“There are people who have told me that, if it wasn’t for the dogs, they probably wouldn’t be here now,” said Lewin, who started the sessions seven years ago. “They’re helping save lives. I’ve been a paramedic 26 years now, and things still hurt you. Until I started doing the emotional support and seeing how my dogs can help people, I never realised how it probably affects me. I work alone on a fast response car as well, so I’ve got nobody to talk to basically.”
Student technician Zoe Spilsbury said the experience had helped take her mind off a long night shift. “The average paramedic goes through lots of trauma. I think it’s like 400 to 600 events of trauma in their career, when the average person probably has three or four,” she said. “So it’s a massive deal to look after each other and our mental health.”
As well as emergency services staff, Lewin has also offered swimming sessions to military veterans, young people with disabilities and other vulnerable people with mental health problems.
He works with Newfoundlands, which were originally bred and used as working dogs for fishers in Newfoundland, Canada. The dogs helped to bring fishing nets ashore, and have a large lung capacity, webbed feet and a waterproof double coat, making them excellent swimmers.
They are the only dog breed to swim like a polar bear, Lewin said, rather than using the typical doggy paddle. “They swim very straight and flat. There’s so much power, it’s very smooth. They just glide,” said Lewin.
In a typical session, people will swim about 30 metres into the lake and one of his three swimming dogs – Storm, Sonar and Walker – will swim out to pull them back to shore. Lewin takes the group through different rescue manoeuvres, some of which involve holding each other in a supportive position while the dogs do the leg work.
“It’s the dog, it’s the water, the peacefulness of everything, the green scenery, the wind that blows through the trees,” said Bianca Warford, an emergency care assistant. “You just feel so relaxed, and the feeling of weightlessness, you just feel so light.”
Lewin originally trained the dogs to do real life water rescues, and travelled around the country showing their abilities to fire services and rescue teams. But there was little demand for them in this capacity, and he started to think of other ways he could put them to good use.
A volunteer who helped him out at events showcasing the dogs, who was herself a former ambulance worker, had been late one day because she planned to take an overdose.
“But she came to the event instead and said swimming with the dogs was like a weight off her shoulders,” Lewin said.
“The dogs swim out to you and they look at you with those eyes, as if they’re trying to heal you. They swim out to you and they don’t condemn, they don’t criticise, all they want to do is take you back to shore.”
Demand for his sessions is on the rise and Lewin has sessions planned in lakes over the summer. “It’s just amazing to see people taking so much joy from it,” he said. “Yesterday we were in Yorkshire working with a different ambulance service, but we’ve all got the same problems. Everyone who comes, wherever we are, they leave with a smile on their face.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.