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Observations of a life enhancing project for those living with Aphasia

Observations of a life enhancing project for those living with Aphasia

“Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke.” National Aphasia Association.

Stroke Rehab Dogs provide innovative and motivating therapeutic opportunities for stroke survivors of all ages and backgrounds.

Volunteers and their dogs work alongside stroke survivors with specific goals in mind, led and supervised by Sallie Bollans (the founder of Stroke Rehab Dogs), based in North London.   As well as having a 30 year background in Occupational Therapy, Sallie has also specialised in Animal Assisted Interventions and how the power of the human-animal bond can be so effective in a therapeutic setting.  Sallie has also formally studied canine behaviour, psychology and training, and utilises all these skills to deliver this unique intervention. The sessions are fun, inspiring and affirming for the stroke survivors, the dogs, and the volunteers.

Stroke survivors with Aphasia engage with the dogs in different activities dependent on their specific goals. Activities such as giving the dogs commands, identifying different parts of the dog’s body, reading instructions and following them, asking questions of the owners, writing the names of the dogs, and keeping the score during ‘competitions’.

Stroke Rehab Dogs is based on the power of the human–animal bond, and I have witnessed first-hand on numerous occasions how a bond is formed, and something amazing happens. It can be in the touch of a paw, the eye contact, the nudge of a nose, the resting of a head on a lap. Something happens that cannot be explained rationally, but there is a difference in the stroke survivor. It can be as simple as a genuine smile that lights up their eyes, a slight shift of posture, a more upright stance or a joyous laugh. It is almost as if something is released, or something re connects in that moment.

As volunteers from all walks of life we have no medical preconceptions of stroke survivors, and because of that we can see them simply as amazing, courageous individuals who we have the privilege of walking alongside for a part of their journey, and it is a humbling and profoundly moving experience.

The following is a quote from the speech and language therapist of a stroke survivor attending Stroke Rehab Dogs sessions (name changed for confidentiality),

Ian has come from having marked comprehension difficulties, a repertoire of only approximately 5-10 words verbally and reduced writing ability to being an extremely competent communicator where he understands both verbal and written commands given by Sallie and the volunteers, reads sentences aloud, gestures, writes words and numbers and holds full conversations with all group participants.

Most noticeably, Ian’s mood has improved. He appears a happy, confident young man who enjoys every minute of the sessions despite working on his most difficult area of function.

… a gentleman who has benefitted from working with the Stroke Rehab Dogs team who has transformed from a frightened, frustrated and significantly impaired man post Stroke, to a confident, engaged, motivated and funny communicator.

Aphasia has a devastating effect on confidence and self-esteem. I have seen stroke survivors affected by Aphasia growing in confidence and regaining their self-esteem as a result of working alongside the dogs. It is not a quick fix, but a slow and challenging journey and a gradual re building of devastated lives, but it is remarkable to see the difference in the communication skills and emotional well-being of those with whom we have been working alongside for a while.

George Eliot said

“… Animals are such agreeable friends- they ask no questions, they pass no criticism…”

and this could be why it works. There is no conscious or unconscious judging or presumptions with a dog. They accept us as we are.

If you would like to find out more about the incredible work of Sallie, the dogs and volunteers, Stroke Rehab Dogs can be found on Facebook.


Cath Demetriou

Volunteer with Stroke Rehab Dogs