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How remarkable Rolo went from a puppy farm to comforting people at the end of life

All dogs are special but Rolo the Therapy Dog is a Springerpoo with an extraordinary story.

The five-year-old dog started life on a puppy farm, and, when rescued by the RSPCA, the helpless pup had E. coli and it was feared he might not pull through.

Yet he defied the odds and now Rolo is an award winning Pets as Therapy dog, bringing comfort to people in hospital and a care home.

Last week, May 13 to 19th 2019, was Dying Matters Awareness Week and I saw this Tweet from Rolo’s account. 

It’s something close to my heart. When I lost my dad in January 2016, it was at St Rocco’s hospice in Warrington, and I remember the staff telling me how pets would visit.

I thought about what comfort having a wet nose and waggy tail must bring to patients, and everyone around them including the hospice staff.

I contacted Claire and was so pleased when she agreed to talk about Rolo’s remarkable role.

Rolo the Therapy Dog
Rolo the Therapy Dog at home with Claire (Image: RSPCA)

Can you tell me a little about your family and life before Rolo?

Yes, I’m Claire, I’m 54, a copywriter and I live in Essex although we are soon to be moving to Suffolk with my husband Mark, 57, and our boys Oliver, 20, and Robin, 14.

We always wanted to have a dog of our own but because Mark and I were out working full time up until shortly before Rolo came into our lives, we didn’t feel it was fair.

I’ve always loved dogs. When I was 12, I did a school project on Guide Dogs. I wanted a dog of my own but my parents were at work, so it wouldn’t be fair, so I would volunteer to walk dogs whenever I could. 

We support Guide Dogs and I’ve volunteered for more than ten years, exercising puppies and boarding them whenever we could, then I went freelance and it meant we could have a dog of our own.

Fantastic, so how did Rolo come into your lives?

I knew one of the local RSPCA volunteers, Kathy, from working with Guide Dogs so I asked if she knew of any dogs who were needing a home.

She said she had just rehomed the last of 30 Springerpoos rescued from a puppy farm. 

Their inspectors saved three mums and three litters, so 30 dogs in total, from a house in Essex after a tip off from a member of the public.

The dogs had been bred for the Christmas market. It just breaks your heart. One of the mums had been found and two of her puppies had died, and another was very poorly with E. coli.

Kathy explained he was at the vets and someone had said they were interested in adopting him, and she said she would let me know if things changed. I couldn’t keep him out of my mind.

Then we had a call to say he had recovered and Kathy said, ‘He’s yours if you would like him.’ I was ecstatic.

Rolo the therapy dog
Rolo as a tiny puppy

And what was it like when you first met?

We collected him from Kathy on January 2nd 2014. He was a tiny bundle of fluff and just sat at my feet and straight away we all fell in love.

He was around 12 weeks old and weighed two and a half kg. It was like a dream come true, I was so overcome with emotion to finally have a dog of my own.

Rolo the therapy dog
Rolo getting up to mischief

What was he like as a puppy?

So funny, he was into everything, putting everything in his mouth, and full of energy as all puppies are. We named him Rolo as he was the colour of chocolate, so sweet, and the ‘last Rolo’ – the last pup in his litter to find a home.

Possibly because of his start in life, it did take him a while to settle at night but, once he was in a routine, he gained confidence and that was no longer a problem.

Rolo was so affectionate with my boys and would sit on their laps as they read to him. We took him for puppy training and he was really responsive.

He loved learning new things. We did two years with a voluntary training group and he had so much fun. He was a playful puppy and still is, but adapts appropriately to different situations. 

Rolo the therapy dog
Rolo enjoying the snow!

How did you get involved with Pets as Therapy?

I had always wanted to do Pets As Therapy if we ever had a dog of our own. To be lucky enough to look after and care for a dog is such a joy and it would be lovely to share that joy.

I asked about volunteering after his first six week training programme as the trainer was an assessor and she explained we needed to bring Rolo back when he was around a year old.

He did brilliantly and passed his assessment so we started by visiting a local care home, Kathryn Court, in January 2015 which we still visit every four weeks.

Pets as Therapy dog Rolo
Rolo the Therapy Dog reporting for duty

And you volunteer at Southend hospital? 

Yes, I really wanted to go to our local hospital at Southend. I had been in the hospital myself and so had my late mother and father, and I didn’t ever remember seeing a dog.

Before Rolo came into our lives, I had breast cancer and was a patient in the cancer ward twice, and recognised how beneficial it would be for people going through treatment.

I knew how much of a lift seeing a dog would bring them. Throughout my life, being close to a dog, seeing them happy, always made me smile and I wanted to do the same for others. 

The patients are really pleased to see a dog, as it’s a little normality. They can stroke him and take photos of him, and even those who may get a little sad at first say it’s a happy sadness.

Some like to talk about their own dog and show us photos as they pet Rolo and it can be very emotional and we build relationships with people and their families.

Occasionally, people are surprised that a dog is allowed in a ward where people are very poorly and having chemotherapy but they do bring something so very special.

Rolo helps with rehabilitation too in the stroke ward, encouraging people with movement and his presence helps with speech. Most of all, Rolo lifts everyone’s mood, visitors and staff included.

Pets as therapy dog rolo
Rolo at work on the Stroke ward (Image: RSPCA)

You were also very keen for Rolo to visit the children’s ward too?

Yes, when I started visiting the hospital, I realised dogs weren’t able to visit the children’s ward, and to me it felt like a shame as dogs bring so much joy to little ones.

It was something I wanted to change, so one day I knocked on the door and explained that I would be happy to go with Rolo to any meeting so they could see him and get a little insight of what he was like and how it could possibly work with him spending time with children if it might help. 

Shortly afterwards, I had a call from the volunteer manager saying they were ready to trial it and that Rolo had been chosen to be the guinea pig.  

That was three years ago and since then we’ve been almost every week.

Pets as Therapy dog Rolo
Rolo being petted on the Children’s Ward (Image: RSPCA)

That’s fantastic, how do the children respond to Rolo?

The children are there for all kinds of reason. Some may have a broken arm or leg and others may be receiving treatment for cancer.

When Rolo comes in the room, their faces light up. They just love him. Of course, not every child can see him, but he has helped a lot of people overcome their fear of dogs.

Often, the children have dogs of their own who can’t come into the hospital, so it’s nice for them to have time with a dog.

I share funny stories about what Rolo has been up too, or we might laugh about his latest haircut as we clip him ourselves and it’s not always perfect.

I might ask a patient to check if I’ve missed a bit, as a distraction whilst they are having a needle put in their arm. He’s even dressed up as Santa Paws.

In delicate and emotional situations he is a comfort. One little boy had to take lots of medicine which wasn’t very nice, so Rolo sat with him. 

From nowhere, Rolo did a massive burp and it made the boy laugh. His father asked if Rolo could be in his room later when he had to take more medicine as he’d been such a welcome distraction. 

He’s sat with other children when they have been having canulas put in or taken out – used when they need intravenous treatment. It can be distressing so it’s soothing for them to stroke him.

Pets as Therapy dog Rolo
Rolo as Santa Paws with Elizabeth Thrussell who has Juvenile Arthritis and a condition named Uveitis causing inflammation of the eye cells. It means she needs treatment every few weeks but she looks forward to hospital visits when Rolo is there. She said: “I can concentrate on Rolo when they are doing my infusion, forget about what’s happening and just cuddle him.”

During Dying Matters Week, you told how Rolo supports those at the end of their lives too?

Yes, this has something that has evolved as we have been volunteering for a few years and inevitably, you build relationships with people.

One evening, the volunteer manager called me at home about a patient, a man aged only 38 with two young children who had colorectal cancer,  who asked if Rolo could go to see him.

He had two dogs at home, but they were boisterous and weren’t able to visit, but he knew Rolo and wanted some time with a dog.

I got Rolo in the car and went to the hospital. In the room were his mum and his wife. I put Rolo on my lap and the man gave him lots of strokes and cuddles.

He saw him on the Thursday and passed away on the Saturday. His wife told me seeing Rolo was one of the last things that made him happy.

We visited another lady in her 60s who suffered a stroke and a brain tumour, leaving her blind and deaf. Her speech had been affected and she couldn’t articulate what she wanted to say.

The nurse asked me to put Rolo on the bed and the lady stroked him and all of a sudden, making perfect sense, she said, ‘It’s a dog, it’s a real dog.’ 

It was the first time she’d said anything coherent and all the nurses were cheering. She would call him her ‘prayer dog,’ and each week he would sit on her lap or my lap.

Later, her daughter asked if he would visit her at the hospice which we did and when she passed away, Rolo and I went to her funeral. 

It’s humbling and it truly is privilege to be asked to go somewhere so intimate and private.  Even in dying he tries to give comfort to friends family and patients and staff.

Rolo the Pets as Therapy dog
Rolo knows how to behave whatever the situation

You must be so proud of him?

Rolo is somehow able to bring light and happiness in the most upsetting of times.

There are times we’ve walked past the bereavement suite where families go in the moments just after they’ve lost a loved one and people have come out to see him. 

When he’s at home with us, Rolo is like any other dog, but when he is at work, he just changes, it’s like he knows what he’s doing. 

He’s completely calm, walks at my heel and stands quietly wagging his tail as people say hello.

Rolo knows how long to stay with patients, you don’t want to move too quickly but you don’t want him to stay too long and for people to feel uncomfortable.

We are so proud of our lovely Rolo and the joy he brings.

To find out more about Rolo, follow him on Twitter @rolotherescue on Instagram @rolotherescuetherapydog  and on Facebook @rolotherescuetherapydog.

  • With thanks to the RSPCA for the professional images in this post.
Pets as Therapy dog Rolo
Rolo has a cuddle with proud mum Claire (Image: RSPCA)

If you enjoyed reading Rolo’s story, you might like to read We meet Doug The Pug Therapy Dog and How Olaf went from Zante Stray to Pets As Therapy Dog.

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