Charlie Le Rougetel and her dog Lola visit people with dementia as part of the Mayhew Animal Home’s TheraPaws programme
Hi Charlie! How did you meet your dog, Lola?
We got her eight years ago. I had gone down to a four-day working week and thought it was a good chance to get a dog. We already had two kittens from the Mayhew Animal Home. I was flicking through the book of animals they currently had – there was one massive dog and all others were Staffordshire Bull Terriers. I’d seen 18-year-old boys round our way with Staffies and they weren’t treating them very well. They looked aggressive and I’d fallen for the whole “Staffies are bad” stereotype, but then I saw a photo of this scrawny little one and she was a mess – no fur on her ears. They introduced us and she was so soft that she wasn’t even in the kennels, she was just following the staff round all day. I completely fell in love with her. She’d been dumped at the door of the Mayhew one night. Her previous owners had been using her to breed. We think she got to the point where her litters were so small that, to them, she wasn’t worth keeping.
It sounds like she’s always had a lovely temperament despite her previous ill-treatment?
She’s really friendly, really relaxed, and she’s not once been aggressive. There’s absolutely nothing that would make you think she’d been treated poorly. They thought she was about three-and-a-half when she was dropped off, so she’s about 12 now. She’s getting on a bit, but she’s the most placid, chilled out dog you could ever meet.
How did you get involved with TheraPaws?
I went back to the Mayhew because I had some more time since setting up a business of my own, and wanted to help. I volunteered as an events coordinator. I was on one of their stands at a summer fete when Lisa, who looks after all their adoptions, said: “You know Lola would be perfect for TheraPaws.” She told me all about the programme and we’ve been a part of it for nearly two years now.
Do you always visit the same place – Kenbrook Residential Home?
You do tend to stick to the same place. The majority of residents where we go have dementia, but there are some where it’s not massively progressed and others who don’t have it at all. They recognise the dogs and look forward to your visits, so it’s quite nice to keep going to the same place. We go for about an hour every two weeks. The manager of the home will let us know if anybody’s new or has requested to see Lola, to make sure we get a chance to say hello.
They’ll pat Lola, talk to us and tell us how their week was. I think it’s very different interacting with animals than other people. There’s no pressure to say the right thing. There’s no judgement. It’s also a nice stress reliever, whatever stage of life you’re in.
How does Lola find it?
She takes everything in her stride. She loves meeting people, being pampered, having her ears tickled. Last year we had to take a couple of months off because she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had a massive tumour removed, but she’s a little miracle. She’s made a complete recovery.
I think it's very different interacting with animals than with other people. There's no pressure to say the right thing. There's no judgement
How do the residents find the programme?
There’s a lady called Doreen, who’s been there since we started, who’s almost completely deaf, and she loves Lola. Doreen would happily have Lola for the whole hour! She doesn’t really mind that she’s not chatting to anyone, she’s just talking to the dog. She’s quite cheeky, so if Lola’s put on weight she’ll say, “Oh, you’re fat.” You’re not supposed to have favourites but, she’s my favourite. There was also a lady called Margery, who had it marked in her calendar when Lola was coming. She would ask her carer to buy treats for her. Everything was just all looking forward to spending time with Lola. Another lady, who sadly passed away, used to sing to Lola. She was a music teacher with really severe dementia. She didn’t really recognise you, she didn’t recognise anybody, but then she would see Lola and start singing to her and know all the words. It was quite something. It’s nice because interacting with the dogs really ignites happy memories in people.
Has the TheraPaws project changed you or Lola at all?
Lola’s honestly such a zen dog, I don’t think anything would change her. But for me it definitely has. Going into the care home with TheraPaws has made me appreciate how important it is to value people in the older stages of life. Some of the patients whose dementia has really progressed can seem like they’re not aware of what’s going on when you first see them. But as soon as you introduce them to the dog and interact with them, you see that it’s actually all going on there. There are completely latent memories that come back, and it just shows how important it is to engage with them.
What would you say to encourage our readers to volunteer with animals?
Altruistically, it’s really lovely to give something back, and for me it was really important to do that for the Mayhew Animal Home after getting three lovely animals from them. What you don’t realise when you start doing it is that, quite selfishly, you get a lot from it as well, because you do really feel like you’re making a difference and you make friends.
If you would like to adopt a lovely animal, or want to find out more about TheraPaws, visit themayhew.org