Natasha Balletta is a lifestyle and pet portrait photographer, Despite being partially sighted, through photography Natasha has found something she loves with a passion and her visual impairments do not stop her. She told us: “I have always loved dogs. Each dog has a different personality. I am a volunteer photographer for All Dogs Matter and I enjoy doing photo shoots with rescue dogs. There is something extra-special about meeting them when you know they have not had the best start in life. It is lovely to see them ending up in loving homes and to be so well adjusted despite everything they have been through.”
Therapy Dogs Nationwide enjoyed its first year at Crufts in 2017 and I got to know some of their lovely dogs, including a deaf spaniel called Ted and Bones, a very affectionate ‘Staffie’ that gave kisses to everyone he met, writes Natasha Balletta.
They are two very special dogs which now play an important role.
Therapy Dogs Nationwide is run by volunteers and their dogs give comfort to people with different health issues and special problems.
They visit places such as stroke units, cancer wards, prisons, care homes and mainstream and special-needs schools.
The charity has also set up a ‘Paws and Read’ programme to help children that struggle with reading, or who are nervous reading in front of others in the classroom.
Rachel Hall adopted Ted from a rescue centre when he was five years-old. As soon as they met Ted offered her his paw and she knew he would soon be part of the family.
When Rachel adopted Ted, she did not know he was deaf until months later when she realised he could not hear the doorbell or hear her opening food packets. “The way he always stares into my eyes, and is constantly watching me for the next hand signal, is the way we communicate with each other”
After introducing him to friends and family she decided to apply for Ted to be a therapy dog with Therapy Dogs Nationwide. Rachel told me: “Ted passed his assessment with flying colours. There is no formal training to be a therapy dog as it is temperament based.”
To help Ted communicate, Rachel takes him to weekly dog classes where they learn basic obedience and heelwork which helps with their visits.
Rachel and Ted visit a dementia care home on a weekly basis. During their visits they perform tricks and routines that the residents enjoy. “As soon as I put Ted’s uniform on he knows where we are going and is eager to get in the car. Many residents suffer hugely with dementia and each week they see us as a new person. Even though they may not know who we are anymore, they always put their hands out to stroke Ted and smile at him when he goes to them.”
Rachel loves to visit the care home. She realises that Ted brightens up a room and makes the residents happier and calmer.
Bones is a ‘Staffie’, and was six months old when his owner, Marylyn, rescued him: “He was found as a stray at four months old in a local park and a dog walker took him to the RSPCA. Soon, he was moved to the council’s pound where the vet said he was ready for re-homing.”
One of Marylyn’s friends, who used to be a city dog warden, did not agree, as Bones was not eating properly, and arrangements were made for him to be moved to Babbington Rescue in Nottingham.
When he arrived at the rescue centre they paid for an operation and discovered the reason Bones was not eating or gaining weight was because a pair of pants was found in his stomach.
After Bones started to gain weight Marylyn’s friend recommended she re-home him. Marylyn said: “The day we met him was the best day so far. Little did we know he would be a massive part of our lives and others’ lives. He is wonderful, warm and friendly and loves to meet other people and animals.”
When Marylyn first had Bones, she came across a lot of prejudice against the breed. People would pull their dogs away and parents with children would avoid them: “It is only when people actually stop and meet him properly that they realise he is a wonderful boy and there is nothing to fear.”
When Bones was three years old, Marylyn wondered if his temperament could be used to spread the word that Staffordshire Bull Terriers are not the monsters they are made out to be.
The first charity Marylyn and Bones joined was Pets as Therapy. He passed his assessment, which involved such things as observing what dogs are like with the public, loud noises and taking treats.
Since joining the charity, Bones goes to two local care homes and a youth group for children with learning difficulties.
He also does dog phobia work and has started a session with university students that are suffering from exam stress whilst coping with mental issues and learning difficulties.
Marylyn said: “The phobia work seems to be his speciality. His first case resulted in a young lad getting a rescue Staffie himself. It is great being able to work with kids that are nervous of dogs and to help them overcome their fears.
If you ask them what breed they are most scared of, it will probably be a Staffie or any other ‘bull’ breed. They are pleasantly surprised when they meet him”
In 2016 Marylyn and Bones joined Therapy Dogs Nationwide. “They are such a warm and friendly group and we are very proud to be a part of it,” Marylyn told me.
When you meet Therapy Dogs such as Ted and Bones, it makes you realise that dogs make such a huge difference to people’s lives.
For more information on Therapy Dogs Nationwide please visit their website www.therapydogsnationwide.org