How Rolo the RSPCA rescue dog became a hospital therapy star

With his teddy bear-like good looks and impeccable bedside manner, Rolo has helped start therapy visits at Southend children’s unit. Wunderdog joins him for walkies

When a child and a dog lie on the floor together, that moment is completely pure. Neither of the two think about how they got here, what’s going on around them, whether life has been fair – it’s all in the moment of playing, exploring and being kind.

In the case of Rolo and the young patient at the children’s ward of Southend University Hospital, maybe the two bonded over their rotten start in life: the eight-months-old boy has spent so much time in hospital that he’s never even met a dog, and Rolo was rescued by the RSPCA from an Illegal dog-breeding farm. As for the dog, he holds no grudges and visits the patients of the Neptune children’s unit after general dog-training with his owner, Claire Dean, and thanks to the lobbying efforts of the ward’s lead play specialist, Lisa Kawa-Akenbo.

Rolo with a patient at the hospital

Rolo, a four-year-old chocolate springerpoo, and Claire have achieved celebrity status in Southend in Essex, because of Rolo’s story and their work. The pooch was rescued by the RSPCA at the age of barely two months. Two of his siblings had died before the saviours could get there and rescued a total of 30 dogs. There was ecoli at the farm.

“He was close to death and would have died if it hadn’t been for the RSPCA,” says Claire as Wunderdog joins the duo on a walk.

“Rolo had to stay at the vet for Christmas – he was born in October, we think for the Christmas puppy market,” she continues. “We picked Rolo up from Kathy Butler, a trustee with the RSPCA at the time, on 2 January 2013. I hadn’t even seen him before, all I knew is that he was a brown springerpoo – and we would adopt him.”

Kathy, who was a trustee at the local RSPCA branch until the end of 2017 and continues to volunteer for the charity, remembers him well: “We are always in awe of all of our animals rescued from neglect and cruelty. Rolo stands out as an exceptional example of resilience and great character.

“When he first arrived with us, along with a number of others from an appalling puppy farm, he was the smallest and most fragile, and was in danger of losing his life. After intense round-the-clock care, he thankfully recovered and was ready to be rehomed. When I matched Rolo with Claire and her family, I knew he would have an amazing life.”

Claire, who has two sons, is one of those responsible adults who always wanted to have a dog but held off until she had enough time for the animal.

Rolo and one of Claire’s sons

“I volunteered for Guide Dogs for the Blind first, for the puppy walking and boarding, where you have a pup in training for a few months,” she says. “I would even go to the training classes when I didn’t have a dog, and, when I was too busy with work, would still volunteer as a guide dog exerciser. You take the working dogs out for a good, long walk.”

With this wealth of experience, Claire was able to use the positive training methods she learned from the Guide Dogs courses for Rolo, all with a specific goal in mind.

“I first heard about Pets as Therapy [PAT] years ago, and I’ve always been interested in how dogs can help humans, and that’s one way I can be involved,” she says. “I’ve always loved dogs – they bring so much joy.”

Rolo dressed for work

The little dog passed his PAT test with no problem when he was nine months old. For this assessment, dogs have to prove they have a good temperament, don’t jump up and aren’t fazed by loud noises that might occur in a hospital – for example, a walking stick falling on a hard floor or hospital beds being moved around.

Before Rolo started brightening up the days of patients at Southend hospital, he went to primary school – as a Read2Dogs dog. Under this scheme, run by PAT, dogs visit schools and children are encouraged to read to them. Read2Dogs is based on research that shows, while children can be nervous and stressed when reading out loud to a group, they become less self-conscious when a PAT dog is in the group.

“Rolo did this for a year,” Claire says. “One of the children was selectively mute, but even she started reading to him.”

But a dedicated human and certified good dog with child experience doesn’t guarantee a gig at the children’s ward of Southend hospital – the ultimate goal.

“Many children’s wards don’t allow dogs, because they are worried about hygiene,” remembers Claire. “But the play specialist at the Neptune unit at Southend was really determined to get one. After a year of doing Read2Dogs, they called to say they would like Rolo to pilot it. Now, we go every week.”

Lisa Kawa-Akenbo, who as a play specialist uses therapeutic play activities to help children cope with pain or fear, tells Wunderdog: “I first heard about Pets as Therapy from other trainee play specialists while studying for my degree. After hearing their positive comments and feedback, I started to research the benefits of pets in hospital, and then I discussed the possibility of implementing the programme on the children’s ward with senior management.

“Despite the PAT programme being in place for several years within this hospital, management had previously declined all proposals to allow them on to the children’s ward.  Because of previous experience, they felt that other senior staff members may not allow these visits to take place, but thankfully, they were a little more open to the idea and were able to see how our patients may benefit from having these visits. I was asked to contact other children’s wards and hospitals to gain information on the policies and procedures in place to provide these visits.”

Armed with her research, Lisa produced guidelines for visiting support animals and met with all paediatric senior staff members to present the PAT programme to be implemented on the ward.

“There were some concerns – allergies, anxieties, fears, health, hygiene and so on – but I was able to reassure those members.  Once this was agreed, I contacted the manager of volunteering, who also organises PAT visits, who suggested Claire and Rolo were suitable candidates for our ward.”

And so, the weekly visits began – and Rolo, always immaculately groomed and wearing a smart yellow PAT bandana, worked his magic. It went so well that the duo won the 2017 Volunteer Achievements Award.

Team Rolo at the awards ceremony

Lisa tells of some examples, such as the eight-months-old boy: “The patient was playing on the floor and Claire asked Rolo to lay beside him. The patient spent around 20 minutes cuddling and exploring Rolo. The child’s parent was so happy with this interaction because he had not yet had the chance to meet a dog as he has spent so much time in hospital.

“A five-year-old regular patient particularly enjoys asking Rolo for high-fives and likes to reward him with a treat. This interaction gives her a sense of normality while in hospital, as it reminds her of her own dog.”

The play specialist adds that it’s not just Rolo, of course, but that Claire’s patience with the children: “Claire has helped several parents and children overcome their fear of dogs by creating a calm, safe atmosphere and an opportunity to express causes of concern.

“From the play team’s perspective, Claire and Rolo have become part of the team.  Rolo has become an unofficial ward mascot.”

That’s a very nice stick

Rolo may be calm and gentle at the bedside of seriously ill patients, but on our walk across a huge orchard along a stream, he is all goofball with flying ears and muddy paws. He greets all the other dogs, plays chase and retrieves sticks the length of a car from the water. His pretty red bandana, made by Claire, now features a mud-splash pattern – a far cry from his yellow PAT bandana he wears to hospital. Out here on the field, Rolo is just a normal, happy dog.

This April, Rolo is celebrating his third year as a regular therapy dog at Southend Hospital, where he also regularly visits patients in the oncology and stroke units. “It’s a win-win – he loves it, I love it, and patients, visitors and staff love it,” says Claire. “We visit patients in other units too – I just ask the ward sister if it’s OK to bring him in, and if they are fine with it, we visit anyone who wants to see him. We also sit outside the maternity unit, where the staff cuddle him. It de-stresses them.”

Kathy from the RSPCA has watched it all with pride. “What Rolo has gone on to achieve so far, is a real inspiration to us, and indeed anyone considering adopting a dog in need,” she says. “Dogs truly have the ability to give us so much, yet ask for so little in return.”

In the case of Rolo, he is giving patients a break from the reality of being in hospital. What he is asking in return may well be that deliciously muddy stick. And maybe a little treat.

You can follow Rolo on Instagram @pat.rolo

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