Guide dogs for the brain

Joy Persaud

We meet the charity that's discovered the perfect remedy for traumatic head injuries—an affectionate pooch.

A glimmer of Hope

Brainy Dog Flo learning to retrieve the laundry
Brainy Dog Flo learning to retrieve the laundry

Lea Cuddy’s life was a busy one, full of socialising and plenty of physical work. But one November morning in 2010, she woke at 5am with an unusual headache.

“I went in to [see] my partner Richard and I was crying because my head was hurting so much," she recalls. "I just said, ‘Get my mum.’ She came round and by that time I was being sick and freezing cold. I don’t remember getting to hospital.”

Lea was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, leaving her with memory and mobility problems. She had to learn to walk again, and she’s alone while Richard is at work.

“Richard has been amazing,” she says. “He’s still there with me through it all, for which I can’t thank him enough. But it can be lonely some days. People you thought were your friends… they’re not there anymore. Dealing with that, as well as what’s happened to me physically, is hard.”

To aid her recovery, Lea attends the Suffolk branch of Headway, the association that supports those with brain injuries. One day, she walked in to see a newcomer, Hope, who seemed to be charming everyone around. Lea wondered whether Hope could also enhance her life.

But Hope isn’t human. Hope is a Labrador-Spaniel crossbreed who’s part of Brainy Dogs, a charity that trains all types of rescue dogs to be companions for people with neurological conditions. 

 

Everything changes

George and Flo from Brainy Dogs
George receiving his weekly visit from Flo

After being bitten by a stranger’s pet while on a beach aged seven, Helen Fairweather is terrified of dogs. Yet, as chief executive of Headway Suffolk, she's passionate about their effects on her clients.

One local person a week suffers a traumatic brain injury.

“It could be a car or cycling accident, domestic violence, or a fall down the stairs. We had one chap who was walking across the kitchen to turn off a pan of rice, slipped, bumped his head and had a traumatic brain injury."

“It can happen to any of us at any time. One result will definitely be poor short-term memory. So if someone’s died in their family, they can’t remember that person has died—every time, the news is new. We’ve got mums who can’t remember their children, and that’s traumatic for everybody concerned. It’s horrendous.”

As well as personality changes, brain-injured individuals often display poor communication and inappropriate sexual behaviour, which others find challenging.

“Quite often they lose their friends. Marriages and partnerships break up because it’s a lifelong condition. After two years, they begin to believe what the professionals are saying—that it’s not going to get an awful lot better."

“There may be some improvements, but personality changes are there for life. And people have got their own lives to get on with; they get very tired, very worn out. So our clients have no one to love them and no one for them to love, and they need that.”

 

Saving lives

Michael and Boss from Brainy Dogs
Michael and his affectionate dog Boss

Helen was inspired by reading Endal by Allen Parton, a Royal Navy veteran who sustained a head injury and was given a therapeutic companion dog (Endal) who changed his life.

“As I read the story, I thought our clients could really benefit by having an Endal,” Helen recalls. “Some time later, I was watching TV and the vet was visiting Bondi Prison to see dogs the prisoners were looking after, to be rehab dogs for people with physical disabilities. Bondi is near Ipswich in Australia, and I thought, anything Ipswich Australia can do, Ipswich UK can do. So I wrote to our local open prison."

With the Blue Cross and vets on board, Helen penned an application to The People’s Millions. Eventually, Brainy Dogs won five years worth of Lottery funding.

“We knew from the people who had the dogs, it really changed their lives,” Helen remarks. “We had one client who wanted to commit suicide but didn’t because he knew his Brainy Dog would be alone if he did. That dog saved that person’s life. It gave him a purpose.”

 

Helping both sides

Alex with Jessie from Brainy Dogs
Alex with Jessie

The staff at Headway Suffolk find that having the dogs around helps clients, even if they aren’t planning to adopt.

“Emotions are affected by brain injuries,” says Helen. “They’re becoming an important rehab tool as well as companions."

“If we say to clients, ‘Would you like to go for a walk?’ the chances are they’ll say no. But if we say, ‘Would you like to go out with the dogs?’ they want to do it.”

So far, Brainy Dogs has trained more than 30 pooches and worked with 30 day-release prisoners, supervised by coordinator Sophie Mayes. Stan, 59, a volunteer prisoner, can relate to clients, having suffered a brain injury himself a decade ago. He helps Sophie to train dogs three times a week.

“I’m blessed to be able to come and do this at Brainy Dogs,” he says. “You can’t fix what’s broken, but if you’re contributing something in some way, you’re giving back. So it’s an emotional and a moral balance.”

Stan goes on to say that without support after prison, ex-offenders can feel alienated from the community, which might lead to reoffending.

“If I’m able to go away and Sophie says, ‘Stan was worth having,’ I’ve got pride in that—and it’s not easy to obtain pride when you’re constantly judging yourself. I want to get it right.”

 

Every little helps

The Reader's Digest team take part in the London to Brighton Walk
The Reader's Digest team fundraised for Brainy Dogs earlier this year by taking part in the London to Brighton Walk

For those unable to adopt, or in the process of doing so, such as Lea, Sophie takes dogs on home visits. Clients can go for walks, which provide exercise, and Sophie can determine their needs. Some animals, for instance, need to be trained to walk alongside a wheelchair or to jump into a car.

“A dog would give me much more confidence—I could meet more people, have company and a new lease of life,” smiles Lea. 

Similarly, Tash, 41, suffers from severe mobility problems as a result of a brain tumour. She sees the dogs at home or at Headway.

“Before I had the dogs [to visit], I didn’t really walk,” she says. “The first time I ever walked with the dog was about four or five houses. By the fourth week, I was actually walking to the shop."

“Just seeing the dogs gives you a lift. They’re always happy to see you, which is lovely.”

 

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