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Real Life: Meet the canine heroes changing lives

Nothing can bring comfort and joy quite like a dog. Lisa Millard, owner of Zephyr the wonder Weimaraner, meets three remarkable four-legged friends

Kara the Staffie belongs to Veronica Grassley who works with the animal companionship charity Our Special Friends, based in Suffolk. Sue, one of the people Kara visits, shares her story

Kara from Our Special Friends (36054845)
Kara from Our Special Friends (36054845)

“At the beginning of 2016 I became seriously ill, with a 50 per cent chance of pulling through. I had a very long stay in hospital - five and a half months to be exact. During this time my five horses, four cats and my dog Mason were taken into a rehoming centre. Now, as you may be able to imagine, this almost destroyed me. These beautiful animals were my life, who gave me peace, love, fun and calmness. My world stopped in January 2016 and I won’t go into detail about my illness, but a year on the threat of it coming back is a possibility. While I was in hospital a dog appeared as a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog, and, oh how I cried. I cannot put into words how much this meant to me. I told the PAT people about my dog, Mason, a beautiful big black Staffie. Next, they organised for a Staffie to come and visit me and my heart melted. I was very worried whether I would ever be able to have and care for another dog - who knows the day may come, then my world will change.

"Next I was introduced to a lady called Veronica Grassley from the animal companionship charity Our Special Friends (OSF), who visits people who are ill like me - or bereaved or in crisis - with her dog. To my great surprise Veronica turned up with Kara, the most stunning blue Staffie I had ever seen. Kara came in and if anyone has owned a Staffie you will know how excited they can be. But Kara approached slowly, calm but interested in where she was. I think she sensed how ill I still was. Kara is so gentle in her nature. I asked Veronica if there was anywhere Kara didn’t like being stroked and if she didn’t mind Kara coming on my sofa. Also, if I could give her treats in a Kong ball so she has to look for them. Veronica said it was up to me if this is what I wanted and that Kara would be happy with a cuddle and a stroke. I have fallen in love with this amazing dog, who sits with me and lets me cuddle and kiss her and rub her tummy. Kara is amazing; she makes me cry with joy at being able to have her in my home. Kara doesn’t realise how special she is. OSF also arranged for me to visit a very gentle horse belonging to another lovely volunteer Caroline. It meant so much to touch a horse again.

"I so look forward to Veronica and Kara’s visits. They make me want to get out of bed and stop feeling sorry for myself, because over the year I had lost my animals and fallen into deep depressions. Now I have two fabulous friends; Veronica and I can talk the hind legs off a donkey while Kara sits there on my sofa chomping on her Kong and talking her own ‘doggy talk’. I’m stroking and cuddling her all the time and I thank them both with all my heart that they have allowed me to be part of their lives. Without Our Special Friends I would have been so lonely - everyone needs a Veronica and Kara in their lives.”

• See ourspecialfriends.org The OSF charity helps people to continue to benefit from animal companionship by providing practical and emotional support during illness, bereavement and crisis. To find out more about the charity, volunteer, fundraise or donate see the website.

Poppy the Labradoodle belongs to Lisa Smart who lives in Cottenham and volunteers with Pets As Therapy

“After a long career in finance, I took a break in April 2019 and quite quickly took up volunteering at EACH children’s hospice in Cambridge and also at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. I really do love it and think I can safely say I have now officially taken early retirement. I live in Cottenham with my husband Paul and my two children Emily (21) and Ben (16) and Poppy – our 6-year-old Labradoodle whom we have had since she was eight weeks old.

"My husband Paul grew up with dogs and I had wanted one since I was little, but with our careers involving commuting to London the timing just never seemed right. That changed six years ago when a new role and more working from home meant we could finally have a dog and along came Poppy. She is a large Labradoodle and quite unusual to look at so often receives lots of attention when we are out and about. Poppy has been a brilliant addition to our family and I just cannot imagine life without her. I don't think I will ever be without a dog again as they really do make such a difference to family life.

"Poppy has always been a gentle, calm and relaxed dog in a home environment – she hardly ever barks, shows great intelligence and even seems to talk to us in her own special way. During my career break I read an article about a therapy dog visiting patients in hospital and I thought Poppy would be perfect. I joined the Pets As Therapy charity and Poppy had an observed assessment which she passed with flying colours. This enabled me to undertake visits to organisations looking for Therapy Dogs, such as Cambridge University colleges to support students suffering from anxiety during stressful academic times.

"I also registered as a Therapy Dog Volunteer at Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust. This entailed Poppy having a trial visit initially to see how she managed in the hospital environment. She behaved impeccably and after I passed the required vetting, we were welcomed into the hospital in January this year. We visit Addenbrooke’s one afternoon a week spending a few hours on the wards where patients or staff have requested the company of a Therapy Dog.

"Poppy loves her therapy work; I only need to grab her special lead and Pets as Therapy bandana from the cupboard and she gets very excited. She loves nothing more than being the centre of attention and being stroked, so is perfect for the job. Her size makes her very striking and she gets noticed as soon as we enter the hospital – it can often take some time to get through the concourse as everyone she encounters wants a stroke and to ask what sort of dog she is. Poppy’s stature is also an asset as she is able to stand next to the hospital beds and is the perfect height for bed-ridden patients to enjoy a bedside stroke.

"The faces of visitors, staff and patients just light up when they see Poppy. I really feel she makes such a difference to the people she meets. If the nurses and doctors who ask to stroke her are having a bad day, or the patients aren’t feeling their best, Poppy provides a welcome distraction. Stand-out moments for me include a wonderful elderly gentleman who had not spoken for a couple of weeks but started chatting away as soon as he stroked Poppy – much to the amazement of his family. I also visited a poorly young teenage girl who almost leaped out of her bed to stroke Poppy, asking her mum to take pictures to post on her Instagram page.

"Poppy has totally changed my life. I so enjoy seeing the joy that she brings to our family being spread to those we visit as part of Poppy’s therapy work. I don't think I would have necessarily started volunteer work had it not been for Poppy and my life has taken a completely different direction which has personally brought me so much pleasure. Poppy is such a special dog and seeing the joy on the faces of patients, students, staff and visitors is absolutely priceless.”

• See more at petsastherapy.org and volunteering.cuh.org.uk

Whitefield lived at Wood Green, The Animals Charity, Godmanchester, until she finally found her forever home

Whitefield and Wood Green The Animal Charity (36054864)
Whitefield and Wood Green The Animal Charity (36054864)

Whitefield, a four-year-old cross breed, has the rather sad accolade of being the longest-ever resident of Wood Green, The Animals Charity. Originally rescued as a puppy in India where she was found in a bush with her mother and siblings, the person who originally discovered the family of pups brought Whitefield, along with her mum and sister, back to the UK to start a new life. Despite such a kind-hearted gesture, it was not the start everybody had hoped for. Whitefield didn’t get on with her canine mum in the home and, in October 2018, found herself living in a kennel environment at Wood Green’s rehoming centre in Godmanchester.

Upheaval and a rather turbulent start in life took its toll, making Whitefield extremely nervous around strangers and, understandably, unable to make the best impression when meeting potential new owners. Weeks passed and Whitefield still didn’t find an owner. She was then placed in a temporary foster home with one of Wood Green’s experienced animal carers, Tanya, who was also the young dog’s main carer at work. Whitefield flourished when she received love, stability and a homely environment where she relaxed into her cuddly, quirky self. But the foster placement was not forever – Whitefield still needed a home.

Wood Green rehomes around 700 dogs a year and most of these find a home within a matter of weeks. That said, for a few dogs waiting for their forever home can really feel like forever. Whitefield was the longest resident the charity had ever had, but they never gave up hope. It wasn’t Whitefield’s fault that she couldn’t show her best self to potential owners – she was simply scared of strangers and withdrew. And the team knew she had potential to be a loving pet; she always attracted plenty of fans within the Wood Green team, and could regularly be found snoozing or enjoying a fuss from staff in the office during the day.

Whitefield is what Wood Green categorises as a high-end pet, with bespoke care and rehoming needs beyond that of an average dog. She required dedicated owners who would give her plenty of time to grow her confidence, feel comfortable and build trust, in a quiet environment where there wouldn’t be lots of visitors or neighbouring dogs. It’s no easy task and during Whitefield’s 17 months in the charity’s care, she was unsuccessfully rehomed once despite thorough assessments and the best intentions from new owners. Another start in the young dog’s life that simply didn’t work out.

Then, after 535 days at Wood Green, Whitefield was spotted by visitors Rebecca and Darrell from Newmarket who were looking for their forever dog. There was much at stake – Whitefield did not want to suffer more disappointment; the charity’s pet advisors had to be sure the couple’s lifestyle and expectations matched Whitefield’s needs. Luckily, for all, they did.

“We were very open minded. Being a veterinary surgeon myself, and being fortunate enough to live on a farm in the countryside, my partner and I felt we could give a chance to a dog that may have struggled to find the right home,” said Rebecca. “As soon as I heard about Whitefield, I felt she might be the one. Her character, with a suspicion of people she doesn’t know, is actually rather like my own! As soon as I met her, I knew we were going to get on just fine and when she came for a home visit, had a sniff around, then lay down on the living room rug with her legs crossed, I knew she would be coming to stay.”

Whitefield has settled in brilliantly. “Although she has only been with us a few weeks, it feels like she’s always been here, and we couldn’t imagine being without her. It is priceless seeing her happy, smiley face waiting for you when you get up in the morning. She loves going for long walks around the stud farm and she has already got my partner, Darrell, completely wrapped around her little finger.”

• Anyone thinking of getting a new pet is encouraged to contact Wood Green for advice and support. Donations make a big difference to help Wood Green be there for more vulnerable pets like Whitefield. Visit woodgreen.org.uk for information.

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