A therapy dog has been awarded the title of 'Northamptonshire Dog of the Year' for the mental health support she has offered to children, students and hospice patients in the county.
Nine year old labrador, Bella, was given the prestigious title of Northamptonshire Dog of the Year during The Big Christmas Dog Walk hosted by dog behaviour specialist, Nathan Watson, on Sunday, December 19.
Dozens of dog walkers attended the festive event with their pooches and helped to raise hundreds of pounds for Irthlingborough charity, Animals In Need.
Bella's owner Joanna Knowles, 44, from Lings, has owned Bella since she was a four-month-old puppy.
Joanna said: "Bella is a very special dog, very laid back and she can sense when you are having a bad day. Bella pulled me through my darkest time and is highly attuned to people feeling their most vulnerable or emotional.
"When you are stressed, anxious and depressed, she always knows. She even head butts the toilet door to get in. She would pick up who is the most vulnerable person in a room and stick to them like glue."
Bella has given blood to the Pet Blood Bank over the last five years including during lockdown, when there was an urgent appeal for dog's blood, before retiring at nine years old.
The loveable labrador is also a part of the 'Read2Dogs' project where children - who are anxious, shy or have English as their second language - read to her to help improve their literacy skills.
Joanna said: "They come to read to her because she is non-judgmental. They normally lay beside her and I get them to show Bella the pictures."
Prior to Covid, Joanna and Bella visited their local nursey to offer nurture sessions to children with ADHD or special needs. Activities included getting children to listen to her heart beat to slow their heart rate down, brushing Bella's teeth and fur and playing hide and seek with Bella's favourite toys.
Bella additionally paid weekly visits to the University of Northampton where they took part in meet and greet Pets As Therapy (PAT) and helped out with the university's mental health sessions. According to Joanna, Bella was 'very popular' with the staff and students there.
As if that was not enough, Bella also loves to visit Cynthia Spencer Hospice on Kettering Road.
Describing an emotional experience there, Joanna said: "We had a non-verbal lady there and, when she saw Bella, she was trying to smile. The nurses were all crying - we could not believe it - and her family were trying to see her do it again."
Bella works as a therapy dog at Pets As Therapy, which is a national charity that aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people through providing them with access to the companionship of an animal.
The charity sees many volunteers with their pets visit a range of establishments including schools, hospitals, care homes, hospices and prisons.
Bella's many life accomplishments were acknowledged at The Big Christmas Dog Walk when she was presented with her award. The dog walk raised a total of £641 for the Animals In Need charity, which will be doubled by Barclaycard.
In response to Bella receiving the award, Joanna said: "I was thrilled and really excited. She has worked so hard, especially through Covid. She had more of a social life than I did. She works hard to make a difference in people's lives."
Joanna has three dogs in total including a Cavapoo called Bitsy, who - at just six months old - started visiting hospices and laying on the beds of patients to bring a smile to their faces. Joanna hopes to have Bitsy assessed so that she can join her big sister, Bella, in being a Pets As Therapy dog.
To find out more about the Pets As Therapy charity, visit https://petsastherapy.org/.