Lola: Therapy dog's moment of magic with dementia patient

therapy dogs
Rens Hageman
Rens Hageman

Lola brings peace and love to care home residents with Pets As Therapy visits.

Lola was always quite a big dog, a follower not a leader, calm, gentle and accommodating and those who didn’t know her probably assumed she was just a dog.

But lurking deep inside this beautiful Basset Hound is a thrilling mystery that made me look at my sweet girl with different eyes, and if possible, an even deeper devotion.

Lola qualified as a Pets As Therapy dog when she was five years old.

In an early morning meeting in Co Down, she met the charity’s volunteer Felicity and passed the ‘touch and cuddle test’, and her favourite, the ‘ear rub test’.

It took only a glance for Lola to let me know she didn’t really mind Felicity throwing a large roasting tray onto the ground in a deserted car park, and so she sailed through the ‘noise test’ with barely a blink.

With a certificate from the charity, we were allocated a care home in Co Down to visit and with our ID, drinking bottle and freshly washed undercarriage, we were all set.

As far as I was concerned, this was going to be a lovely morning meeting the frail and vulnerable, allowing them the pleasure of connecting with my gentle dog, maybe even sparking childhood memories amid the routine of care home life.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to have an out-of-this-world experience seared onto my memory and a deeper faith in the purity of dogs, but that’s what happened.

I’ll set the scene.

The Pets As Therapy charity expected me to walk around the care home where I would gently knock on the door of residents’ rooms, introduce myself and ask if they would like a visit from Lola.

Lola however had other plans.

Still on her lead, she took off at a steady plod, sharply exiting reception left, tail up like a periscope, her ample derriere happily swinging in true Basset style as she made her way down corridors, making clear decisions and not looking back.

Lola was on a mission.

We’d never been in this building before, a hotel repurposed as a care home in a complex maze of rooms, landings and hallways.

After a few minutes, Lola made a rather dramatic entrance into a bedroom, crashing her 32kg frame through the door and guiding her sitting-gear smoothly into place.

Inside the little room a frail elderly lady sat in her armchair, her hands clasped, her head bowed, chin on her chest, silent.

Her husband on his daily visit, was sitting on the single bed swinging his legs and looked startled by the unannounced arrival.

For a moment no one moved, no one spoke.

As I said hello to the couple, Lola executed a three-point turn and reversed down the side of the lady’s armchair and there she sat, occasionally lifting her head to look at her client.

My rehearsed introduction about being part of a dog visiting service charity had long gone out the window.

I wondered what this couple must have thought as a large dog appeared out of nowhere into the bedroom and ensconced herself like a side table.

’Oh, eh, hello,’ I said. ‘Do you like dogs?’

The man said: ‘Yes we like dogs.’

I asked him: ‘Are you OK if Lola visits you?’

He said, ‘I’m sure that’ll be fine,’ which was lucky because Lola was already visiting.

The lady didn’t lift her head, she didn’t speak or acknowledge anything different in her daily routine and for a moment I was at a loss for what more to say. My notion of a pleasant morning’s chat faded fast.

I could feel my scalp prickle and in my mind I was rehearsing our exit strategy, but Lola was not for moving. Her eyes all but closed in the warmth of the room, she appeared to have slipped into a moment of zen Basset meditation.

And then suddenly but quietly, the magic happened.

The lady moved her arm, dropping her hand to Lola’s big heavy ear which she started to gently pull up, before she allowed it to unfurl and drop, pull and drop, pull and drop.

Lola was in heaven… eyes closed, chin up accommodating the quintessential ear massage.

Relief washed over me as I realised this was why we were here, this little moment of comfort, the gentle connection, the unspoken love. There is simply no ear like a Basset ear, and Lola is gifted with two of the very best in jet black.

Her big lug flowed like heavy silk through the lady’s hand and then she tipped sideways in her chair and whispered a private conversation with Lola who briefly opened her eyes before she returned to zen.

My heart filled and I smiled up at the old gent sitting on the bed, but to my horror his face was wet with tears, his eyes brimming and flooding, big fat drops of emotion travelling silently down his chin before soaking into his shirt and tie.

I froze for a second, this picture was wrong…

Mild panic rose up in me and I said: “I’m sorry, we can go, we don’t have to stay. We’re not here to upset you.”

He grasped my hand and said: “No, please. Don’t go, please don’t go. I’ve told them. I’ve told the nurses she’s in there. The dog knows. My wife hasn’t said a word in two and a half years.

But she’s still in there, I know it and your dog knows it too.”

We looked at each other, we looked at his wife and we looked at Lola.

I felt a rush of love and sorrow, love and happiness, love and surprise, I felt the pure love of our big dog for a little stranger who was fading from this world.

I stood back a little, feeling I was intruding on a deeply personal moment for this devoted old couple.

But I couldn’t help but watch from the doorway and I witnessed a masterclass in canine compassion.

After a minute or two the lady stopped pulling Lola’s ear, her arm dropped by the side of the chair and the quiet chatter slowed and ceased.

I looked at the man on the bed and he just nodded. It was over, a beautiful miracle witnessed and never to be forgotten.

There was no movement from Lola, she just opened her eyes and gazed ahead. I called her. “Come on Lola, come on sweet girl, let’s go, let’s go,” but she stayed put, her big body filling the space on the floor, her big heart filling the room.

After another minute or more, she looked up at her client and watched her for a moment before she got up and walked away leaving a sense of calm in her wake.

There was communication there, communication in a language only they understood, was it hello, was it goodbye, or was it simply ‘I am here’?

I tried to say cheerio to the man but I couldn’t get the words out.

He couldn’t speak either. We nodded some sort of agreement and goodbye, and I held it together long enough for Lola to plod off down the corridor, her mission for the day complete.

I’d always known dogs were special and enjoyed an instant love for them but I’d never really understood just how special until Lola barged into a care home with a message of love.

The following week, we went back to the care home, back to the lady’s room and this time I was ready. But she was gone, her bed had been stripped bare, her husband home alone nursing his broken heart, years of chat, laughter and companionship at an end, the world changed forever. That lady’s final conversation on this earth was with our dear Lola, it may have been the most important of her life and we’ll never know what was said.

These days Lola, now 11, is the matriarch of our family pack, often referred to as Matron from her nursing home career. She is quiet still, but today I view her calm as her strength, her passive accommodation of strangers as compassion and I defy anyone to try to convince me she is just a dog…

Volunteers who wish to become therapy visitors with their dogs are asked to:

  • Be 18 years or older.
  • Commit to a regular one hour visit to a centre
  • Have a caring and approachable nature.
  • Have awareness and sensitivity.
  • Be capable of carrying out visits in a positive and discreet manner.
  • Respect confidentiality, and be able to maintain control of your dog.

Lola will continue her care home visits when Covid restrictions allow.

(Article source: Belfast Live)

What makes a good therapy dog?

A certified therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations. Therapy dogs must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted, cuddled, and handled, sometimes clumsily, by unfamiliar people and to enjoy that contact.

What pet is best for anxiety?

The most common pets for reducing anxiety are dogs and cats. If you or your family members are allergic, or you don’t have room for a dog or a cat, consider a pet that can live in a small cage such as a guinea pig or a hamster. A bird can also make for a great pet and add its song to your home.

Alternative therapy pets

Little mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets, are good therapy: ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held.

8 small pets that are soft, affectionate, and perfect for cuddling

  • Hamsters are naturally playful, but they’re also extremely affectionate and love attention.
  • Ferrets
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Lovebirds
  • Hedgehogs
  • Sugar Gliders
  • Chinchillas
  • Rabbits

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