Therapy dog Alfie making life brighter for hospital patients in Lancashire

  • Video report by Victoria Grimes

A therapy dog offering "liquid sunshine" and unconditional love to patients in a Lancashire hospital has been given a permanent home with the NHS, thanks to a charity grant.

Cockapoo Alfie rose to fame when he melted the hearts of the Prince and Princess of Wales during a visit to Clitheroe Community Hospital in January 2022.

At just 10-weeks-old, he managed a cuddle from both of the royal visitors, joyfully licking the cheek of Prince William.

Now 15-months-old, Alfie is a fully trained therapy dog working at all East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) sites, including at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital, where he has become a familiar face on the corridors.

He is based at the hospital's Spiritual Care Centre, and lives with Chaplain and Therapy Dog Practitioner Rachel Fielding.

Alfie revels in his role of Head of Happiness at the hospital, pictured with Chaplain Rachel Fielding and patient Alisha Atkinson. Credit: ITV Grananda

Rachel says: "Alfie brings endless joy to everyone he meets and enables us to reach people who otherwise we would not be able to.

"Hospitals can be scary places for people. Alfie brings the outside world in to help people feel individual and less isolated. 

"Walking the hospital corridors as a Chaplain is always full of encounters, but when I'm with Alfie we are bombarded by people asking to stroke him - it’s amazing!

"I liken him to liquid sunshine - when you walk onto a ward with him, you can feel the change - just seeing him takes the strain away."

19 year-old Alisha Atkinson has been in the hospital for three months. Diagnosed with a condition which causes painful inflammation of the muscles, she has been undergoing various severe treatments, which she says have been exhausting.

Alfie and Rachel are regular visitors to Alisha's ward at Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital. Credit: ITV Granada

"I'm just lying in bed all day, because I can't be handled, My muscles are really sore - it hurts to move." she said.

"It's very lonely in here, and you can only have visitors at certain times, and when you don't have visitors you have doctors prodding you, so it's nice to have a dog here.

"It's a relief when Alfie comes. He breaks the day up a bit - his cuddles are the main benefit."

Alfie came to the Trust when he was just nine-weeks-old and by the following week, he had met Prince William and licked him on the cheek. 

After getting up close and personal with Kate and Prince William, he was officially named by the Duchess.

Rachel said: "He snuggled into Kate's coat and she gave him a cuddle. She passed him to William and he melted when he held him.

"Walking on corridors or outside when he goes for walks, exposes Alfie to many different situations – patients who may not engage on a ward will often make the first move to us when out and about. 

"He enables us to reach people who otherwise we would not be able to - he enables life-changing conversations."

Alfie is also a friend to the staff at the hospital.

Nurse Jo Gaskell says Alfie makes a huge difference to both staff and patients. Credit: ITV Granada

Jo Gaskell is End of Life and Bereavement Clinical Lead Nurse - she says the Pandemic was a particularly difficult period for NHS staff.

"It was a very difficult time for staff, patients and their loved ones. It was a challenge.

"Staff feel a little bit of comfort from Alfie and it just makes life at work a little bit easier.

"He is really good for patients and their families too.

"When people are struggling, sometimes just seeing him is a bit of a diversion from what's happening."

ELHT Chief Executive Martin Hodgson said: "Often I'll be in a really tricky meeting or dealing with something difficult and his little face will appear at your chair.

"You look down and it just takes some of the stress away.

"It's everything that we are trying to achieve for all staff and patients."

Chief Executive of ELHT, Martin Hodgson Credit: ITV Granada

Thanks to grants from the NHS Charities Together organisation, Alfie will be able to work three days a week, visiting patients and staff at all of the ELHT Trust's sites. 

The charity is the national organisation supporting the NHS workforce and helping to improve care for patients and communities.

The charity says the last two years after the pandemic have been particularly traumatic, with many staff feeling burnt-out, anxious and exhausted.

Alfie the dog is just one of the measures being provided to help them, along with places to rest during busy shifts and dedicated counselling support for those who are struggling with their mental health.

The charity, has also provided the hospital with a new retail hub, which it's hoped will encourage people to keep donating and buying to raise more money for the hospital. 

Head of Charity for ELHT, Denise Gee said: "We want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has donated to help the NHS charities. It makes a difference everywhere, including help like Alfie the dog."

"People were so generous during the pandemic. We are hoping to keep that generosity going to keep making a difference to staff and patients.