A joyful pet project

A hand strokes the fur, a soft nose pokes at the fingers. A voice that has been quiet wants to speak again. A smile appears in an absent face. It may only be a small miracle that is happening but it’s a miracle all the same. The Red Cross’s Friendship Dogs bring a little life to an otherwise often uneventful existence at homes for the elderly and people with dementia.

“If I go there without a dog, the clients don’t always recognise me. But when Abby’s with me they know”, says Gudrun Brändström.

Skrållan is new to the job; a little shy and she only gives her sloppy poodle kisses to a selected few. However, with a hug from her owner, she becomes daring enough to sniff and say hello. Her ‘colleague’ Abby is more experienced and has been a friendship dog since the beginning of 2013. She likes to lay her heavy bull mastiff head on the knee of anyone who wants to, and communicates with both her tail and her voice. The Red Cross’s friendship dogs are paying their weekly visit to Eckerö and the clients of Solgården gratefully receive all the affection the two four-legged friends have to offer.

Even the owners of the friendship dogs feel at home during the visits. A lot of dog owners have no interest in competing with or exhibiting their dogs but appreciate their companionship. Here Skrållan the poodle gives her owner Margaretha Österman a high five.

Friendship is the reason

The dog has been man’s best friend for over 10,000 years. As a form of thanks for the food people gave them, the earliest dogs guarded humans against wild dogs and wolves. Dogs, however, offer friendship and in a way that no other animal does. And friendship and human values are essential to the very idea of the Red Cross. This organised friendship activity was set up during the 1950s in Finland, when volunteers began giving up their free time to the elderly, sick and the lonely. Over 100 people are currently involved in the friendship activity in some way or other. The 40 friendship dogs with their companions visit over a hundred people all over Åland every week.

Abby is wearing the friendship dogs’ distinctive red scarf, with her name embroidered on it. A friendship dog has to like people and be calm and confident. And of course the dog must think the job is fun in itself, otherwise it will not work.

Small miracles

“We chat together, you and me. We always do whenever you come”,

A wrinkly hand tenderly strokes the creases on Abby’s face. Another one gets a tap from her wagging tail. There is quite a lot of research that has proven the beneficial effects that contact with a dog has on a person’s health. Stroking soft fur releases the pleasure hormone oxytocin. We become happy, the levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced in the body and our blood pressure falls. Abby’s companion Gudrun Brändström watches how the clients brighten up when the dogs come to visit them.

“There are so many little stories that demonstrate how good it is”, she says.

“Once we were in a section for dementia, where there was a lady who could no longer speak. When we came to visit with the dogs, her mouth started to move, as if she was chewing, and after a couple of further visits she suddenly started to speak a few words”.

Most often the dogs go in pairs – a little one and a big one. It’s often easy to put a small dog in bed with someone who is unable to get up and easy to pet for someone who is sitting down.

“A lot of the elderly people used to have dogs themselves, but lost touch with their animals when they moved into the home. When we come to visit their memories come back and they want to tell us about the dogs they have had during their lifetime. And we have the time. We listen. The visits often last longer than the half an hour planned”, says Gudrun.

A lot of the elderly people have had a dog in the family at some point, and their memories often come flooding back when the friendship dogs greet them. “They want to tell us their stories and we are there for them. We have the time to listen”. says Gudrun.

Beneficial for everyone

Gudrun is constantly on the lookout for more dogs and people for her group. The friendship dogs are pure breeds as well as all kinds of mongrels. The important thing is for the dog to be kind, friendly and confident.

“The same applies to the dog handler; it’s teamwork and both have to be suitable for the job. I test both of them together”, says Gudrun.

“It can be so very rewarding, right from the start. People brighten up when we come. There was once a client who was hardly lucid, but when the nurse brought her hand to the dog and let her stroke its fur, her face lit up in a smile. Sometimes family members tell us that they have visited their parents and that they look forward to the dogs coming again. To be a part of this happiness, that really is something fantastic”.

The Red Cross and Paf

  • The Red Cross was set up in 1863 by the Swiss banker Henry Dunant, who some years earlier had witnessed a serious battle in Solferino in northern Italy. The numbers of casualties and dead were enormous and Dunant, together with other volunteers, tried to organise aid for the victims. His thoughts and experiences from this event laid the foundation for the creation of the volunteer organisation.
  • Today the Red Cross is an international humanitarian movement with around 97 million volunteer workers, members and staff.
  • The Finnish Red Cross was set up in 1877 and on Åland a local division was set up by eleven women in 1939.
  • The Red Cross is the organisation that ensures that there is an emergency service on Åland in the event of disasters or accidents. The head of the emergency service for Åland works here.
  • The Red Cross also arranges crisis groups of various kinds. The entire voluntary rescue service (VRS) is run by the Red Cross, with search dogs, psychological support groups and more.
  • The Red Cross has five active first aid groups throughout Åland and activities for young people are also arranged.
  • The Red Cross on Åland is 83% financed by funds from Paf (2015).
14 December 2016

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