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Dementia Dog: the four-legged carer

9th Rhagfyr 2019

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

A dementia dog called Uno has transformed the lives of this Glasgow couple

Uno at home in Glasgow with his owners Anne and Henry Rankin

When retired policeman Henry Rankin was first diagnosed with dementia, he thought his life was over. Ten years later the 66-year-old is full of confidence about the future thanks, in part, to a Yellow Labrador Retriever called Uno.

Henry first realised he had an issue with his memory and concentration after he retired from the police force in 2000.

Then, at the age of 56, he completely forgot about a meeting in central Glasgow he had arranged with his wife, Anne. The incident prompted him to visit a memory clinic where a psychologist diagnosed vascular dementia, told him there was no cure and asked him to come back in six months.

Henry, who was tired, anxious and confused, thought he had been given six months to live. “I walked past my wife and daughter in the waiting room and went out into the middle of the road,” he recalls. “I thought there was no point going on.”

For six weeks after the diagnosis Henry didn’t leave his house in East Renfrewshire, Greater Glasgow. He was worried he’d meet people he knew and wouldn’t be able to remember their name.

It was a difficult time for Anne too. She worried about Henry whenever she left the house. “Dementia makes life smaller – for the person with dementia and their carer,” she says.

Things began to improve when Anne persuaded Henry to attend a meeting of the Scottish Dementia Working Group (SDWG), a campaigning and awareness-raising group whose members all have a diagnosis of dementia. He was reluctant to stay at first, but persisted with his wife’s encouragement. Since then, he has served as the chair of the SDWG, spoken at universities about his condition and accepted a lifetime achievement award from Alzheimer Scotland.

Uno wakes Henry every morning by touching his nose to his hand

Henry first learned about dementia dogs when he met Alec, a black Labrador belonging to a SDWG member living in Dundee.

Several years later, he and Anne were at an Alzheimer Scotland conference in Edinburgh when they came across a stand run by The Dementia Dog Project, a collaboration between Alzheimer Scotland and the assistance dog charity Dogs for Good. This pioneering project was supported by the Life Changes Trust which is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, and provides families with trained dementia assistance dogs.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

About 12 months after Henry and Anne decided to apply for a dementia dog they took delivery of Uno, a Yellow Labrador who has made a profound change to both their lives.

“Uno wakes me up in the morning by touching his nose against my hand,” says Henry. “He gets my bag of medication and brings it upstairs. He can open doors and get the letters from the letterbox. He can even take my clothes off. All I have to say is ‘pull pull’ and he’ll do that.”

Uno is also extremely sensitive to Henry’s mood. If he senses confusion or anxiety he will walk over and reassure his owner by putting his head on his knee.

When Henry had a fall at home last year – he has Type 1 diabetes and has to monitor his blood sugar levels – Uno sat by him until help arrived.

“Even though he isn’t trained for it [monitoring blood sugar levels] he seems to sense if something’s wrong,” says Anne. “When Henry went to on a trip to Edinburgh they [his companions] realised his blood sugar was low because Uno kept putting his head on his lap.”

Uno with Anne and Henry Rankin at their home in Glasgow, Scotland

Uno, who is four years old, knows it’s time to go to work when Anne or Henry attach his bright green assistance dog coat. Each time he performs a task he is rewarded with a small treat.

“When his coat goes on it means he’s working and he’s a different dog,” says Henry. “But even when he’s working we want people to talk to him and pat him. And when Anne takes him to the park without his coat on he’s just an ordinary dog. He has a working life and a dog life.”

The canine carer has transformed both their lives. Henry is confident about leaving the house – Uno has been on a bus, a train and even an aircraft – and Anne is happy to leave her husband in the dog’s company.

“Uno has given Henry a reason to get up in the morning,” says Anne. “He makes him go out for a walk and socialise. Henry was always a good talker, but he’d been backing off talking to people. Now I hear him boasting about Uno to people.

“But it’s also helped me as well. Uno gives me reassurance when I’m out and even when I’m at home his presence gives me downtime. He helps both of us - we’re a complete unit. He’s better than winning the lottery.”

Henry knows he is fortunate to have Uno and wants more people to be aware of the benefits of a dementia dog. “It’s the best thing ever,” he says. “He helps me so much. But a lot of people don’t know about them [dementia dogs] and I think that’s sad.”