Last week, I was privileged to visit the St Johns Hospice in North London with some very special people. And an even more special dog.
The award-winning Mayhew Animal Home in north London, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, rescues and rehomes hundreds of dogs and cats every year. It has recently expanded its animal welfare and education programmes into far-off countries such as Afghanistan, Russia, Georgia, India and Nepal.
It also runs an extraordinary programme called 'TheraPaws', taking carefully-assessed dogs into hospitals, hospices, and care homes. The dogs provide comfort and even pain relief to people with life-limiting conditions, as well as delight and stimulation to patients suffering dementia.
The dog who I accompanied was a 3 year old pug called Flora. What was immediately noticeable was how the whole room seemed to light up whenever she entered. It wasn't just the faces of patients she would bring a smile too. For relatives too, her arrival provided a welcome break and distraction. And when we would go from room to room, it seemed as if staff would emerge from nowhere to pet this four-legged therapist.
There's one 'TheraPaws' dog, though, who has stolen everyone's heart - and is challenging perceptions about dog breeds.
Her name is Lola.
Lola is an 11-year old Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Over the past year, she and her owner Charlie have been visiting the Kenbrook Residential Home in London which cares for sufferers of dementia.
Lola was adopted by Charlie from The Mayhew after she was dumped at the shelter overnight. She is a rare 'blue Staffie' - puppies with this distinctive coat can sell for £1000 each.
"We think Lola was used by her previous owners as a breeding machine, and then abandoned when she was no longer wanted," explains Luke Berman, the TheraPaws Project Manager at The Mayhew. "She is the perfect therapy dog because she is so gentle and peaceful."
"Not only is Lola a caring therapy dog who is helping to improve peoples' lives, she is also a brilliant Staffie ambassador who is changing peoples' perceptions of the breed," he adds.
In fact, Lola is not alone. Indeed, there are far more Staffies than any other breed on the Therapaws team.
"Staffies love being around people," says Zoe Edwards, The Mayhew's Animal Welfare Manager. "They bond quickly with their owner and are very eager to please.
"Unfortunately all of these wonderful traits can go against this breed if they end up in the hands of an irresponsible owner who wants to train them and use them for negative purposes," she adds.
And this is surely the key point. Dog breeds like the Staffordshire Bull Terrier are not innately aggressive. In fact they are intelligent, affectionate and easy to train. And they are used, and abused, by people involved in dog-fighting precisely because of their loyalty and their desire to please.
By the same token, in the right hands, the humble Staffie is a bubbly, friendly dog that can bring immeasurable joy and peace to some of sickest and most vulnerable members of the community.
This is why breed-specific legislation does little if anything to protect people, let alone dogs, as it is facing the wrong direction.
It is also why using dogs - whether they be Staffies or any other breed - in the vicious barbarity that is dog-fighting represents the worst kind of betrayal for these trusting animals.
"All the TheraPaws dogs are amazing, but I do have a soft spot for the Staffies," says Luke.
The story of Maria, another Mayhew Staffie, seems to confirm this.
"It's now been 18 months since we got Maria, and I can honestly say it was the best decision ever," says Maria's adopter. "My son James is autistic and struggles making friends, but having such a strong bond with Maria has given him much more confidence. I can really see the difference in him since she came to live with us."
The League plans to work with the Mayhew to help educate people and promote greater understanding - and proper care and treatment - of breeds such as the Staffie. It is also helping to rescue, treat and rehabilitate dogs that have been used and abused by dog-fighters. Find out more about our Project Bloodline dog fighting operation.
Please learn more about The Mayhew Home and it's Therapaws Project.
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