‘The Dogtor is in’

Meet Billy: the emotional support dog, who in recent months has become a frequent visitor to the Medical School at the University of Manchester.  In an effort to reduce exam stress for medical students (and staff) Claire Mimnagh invited Billy into the Communication and Consultative Skills Centre. This idea had come to Claire when she learned that a colleague, Sue Warhust, had trained her canine companion Billy as a PAT (Pets As Therapy) dog.

     Billy - the "Dogtor"     
Sue Warhurst 

Our interest comes from our work on a Wellcome Trust funded Investigator Award based at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, exploring ‘multispecies medicine’.  The collective research explores how medicine has formed various partnerships with nonhuman species to enhance health and wellbeing in everyday and clinical settings.

Billy’s latest visit to the medical school provided us with an opportunity to observe a much broader phenomenon and a relatively new breed of service animal in action – the emotional support dog

     Neil Pemberton - Billy level perspective     

We followed Billy throughout his working day, relying on hand-held camera work to follow his interactions with students and staff. Sometimes this included lying on the floor to film to consider what was happening from Billy’s perspective. 

 

From the footage, we selected two specific encounters: his interactions with a group of students and then with an individual staff member. Each encounter reveals lively emotional exchanges.

The camera was moved to capture close ups of Billy’s calmness or excitement at being stroked by many different strangers, before being moved out to record his human caresser’s emotional responses, who were equally ‘touched’ in the encounter:  smiling, laughing, chatting.  In many instances, the viewer gets a tangible sense of the intimacy of the exchange and the literally warm nature of temporary encounters initiated by Billy.

     Billy with staff     
     Billy - with students     

Our goal was never to assess the efficacy of such therapy. Rather we wished to use the camera to capture difficult to articulate interactions that might testify to emotional exchanges initiated by such therapy, reveal the everyday worlds in which dogs are seen as care-givers, and how their support work is meaningful to all parties. In making the film, we were struck by how the camera revealed Billy’s capacity to change the mood of those he encountered and to create a wave of infectious positive emotion that drew people to Billy and rippled away from the encounters.

 

Billy is not the only non-human career we are interested in. As part of the project, we are planning to make a series of micro films exploring different kinds of multispecies medicine in and around the North West; this film is our first. In making these films, our aim is to deploy and develop a ‘visual ethnographic’ approach to show how these distinctive therapeutic encounters were understood, arranged and experienced.

You can watch the full film below 

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