Rabbits and guinea pigs to soothe people with Alzheimer’s. Dogs capable of picking up objects, guiding people or detecting illnesses… Animals are capable of assisting humans and doing them good. Reporting.
This Friday, April 14, 2023, fierce atmosphere during the Magnus Hockey Line final between the Rouen Dragons and the Bruleurs de Loups Grenoble. In the stands: nearly 3,000 people. And in the middle of the pack: a female dog.
Lolly wags her tail at top speed. She is always excited in this Nathalie Péchalat rink, which she knows like the back of her hand, and where everyone knows her. Cap in the colors of the dragons on the head, blue cape on the back indicating “Epilepsy alert assistance dog”, Lolly accompanies Florence Choubat, subscriber here since the beginning of the season. “She can notify me anytime, 24/7“» she explains. Florence, 37, suffers from epilepsy, and Lolly is there to watch over her.
Lolly, 7 years old, has the incredible ability to warn Florence before the onset of a crisis. Alongside Rouen since 2018, the black Labrador was trained by the Handichiens association. How ? By teaching him to react to the smell given off by Florence during her convulsions.
With simple cottons, “my mom recovered the perspiration I gave off during my seizures“, says Florence. Samples sent to the Handichiens association to teach Lolly to recognize this olfactory signature that Florence can release up to 1 hour before the first signs. “I can show you“, proposes the thirty-something.
Florence puts a sample in her pocket and goes to have a coffee on her terrace, as if nothing had happened. Quickly, Lolly approaches. It takes him less than a minute to change his attitude. It starts with muzzling Florence. Light at first, then stronger and stronger. “We call it ‘Poke'”. To be sure of making herself understood, Lolly stares at Florence and begins to bark.
At this precise moment, it is a simulation. But normally, that means Florence is going to have a seizure. On average, she experiences it once a week. And each time, Lolly warns her. Florence must therefore quickly get to safety. Because at the time of the crisis, Florence falls to the ground, convulses, and bumps everywhere. She has already broken a shoulder, an arm, her wrists…
When this happens at home, it’s always the same routine: head to a large reclining chair in the living room. “I will put myself in a lying position to avoid falling forward“, describes Florence. Barely installed, Lolly jumps on her. The 32-kilo dog positions herself so that her mistress does not slip on the ground during her crisis. She remains like this until the first convulsions occur, and it can last”an hour, an hour and a half“.
Florence has all sorts of ways to describe her dog, and the bond between them. “It’s my seatbelt, my guardian angel“. This mother of a little boy even considers Lolly as her second child. Like any assistance dog, Lolly will be entitled to a pension. Two possible solutions: either she joins a foster family, or she stays with Florence. “I won’t be able to separate myself from her, it’s impossible“.
When we register people with electroencephalograms and put electrodes on their heads, we don’t detect anything.Dr Nathalie Chastan, neurologist at Rouen University Hospital
Florence’s neurologist is not really a dog lover in general. But with Lolly, the current goes well. At Rouen University Hospital, Dr. Nathalie Chastan welcomes her patient for a follow-up consultation. As usual, Lolly receives the caresses of a good part of the service, before lying down quietly in the doctor’s office, and closing her eyes.
“This dog doesn’t seem very useful when you see him like that, smiled Dr. Chastan, but it is a brilliant means of prevention. “And above all, it is a more efficient way than the most advanced technologies.”When we record people with electroencephalograms, when we put electrodes on their heads, we don’t detect anything, whether it’s 1 hour before or even a few minutes before. “
To think that Lolly and all these “super-dogs” of assistance, were only simple puppies far from suspecting their destiny… Before becoming a guide dog for the blind, an alert dog to detect crises or cancers, assistance dog for people with reduced mobility, or discovery dog for autistic disorders… they were just harmless and carefree little stuffed animals.
“Here is a litter of little Labradors“. In the hands of Mélanie, a little puppy born a week earlier. “Out of a litter of nine, I think two or three maximum are destined to become service dogs; the rest are family dogs“.
Mélanie Durieu is a farmer and canine breeder. At La Ferté-Saint-Samson, she breeds and raises Golden Retrievers and Labradors, “breeds that are easy to train” and renowned for their adaptability.
Because they will experience many changes in their lives: first dog breeding until they are 2 months old, then a foster family until they are 18 months old, then training within the Handichien association (with which collaborates with Mélanie Durieu), and finally a good part of their life working for a beneficiary… before a possible retirement elsewhere! “Yes, these are dogs that are going to have a different life. Do they prefer this life or family life? we will never know“.
Training an assistance dog costs a total of between €15,000 and €20,000, which Handichien manages to finance through donations and sponsorship. In the end, the beneficiary pays nothing.
Mélanie’s job will not be to train them, but to make them aware of certain situations. An obstacle course has been set up for the puppies to learn to walk in height (“the puppy must not jump, he must remain calmly in a place“) or to evolve in a tunnel (“adults, they may have to enter a metro“). Finally, one of Mélanie’s missions is to begin to socialize them. She then reveals a third hat to us…
By car. Mélanie Durieu takes along Goldens barely a month old, baby Labradors a few days old, but also rabbits and guinea pigs. The canine farmer-breeder then becomes a project manager in animal mediation.
Graduated 2 years ago, she spends a few afternoons a week in IMEs, with disabled children, or in retirement homes, with what she calls her target audience: the elderly.
We enter with Mélanie and her animals in the senior Alzheimer shared apartment “CetteFamille” in Yquebeuf. Inside, a dozen residents. On the large table, Mélanie places rabbits and guinea pigs, but also carrots, salads, dandelions…”These people have quite significant memory loss. For example the principles of fruits / vegetables, it is no longer acquired. “ Mélanie then tries to refresh their memory by using the animals, whose mission is to ” appease “.
And yes, the magic happens. Seeing a guinea pig devour a clementine, a resident laughs: “Oh what happiness. How fun ! “Alison, roommate manager, finds them.”more smiling, less closed“after an animal mediation session. She tells us that one of the residents is usually sad, and cries a lot. In contact with animals, she smiles again.
And others even regain their memory, the time of a conversation. “Do you remember having a dog ? ” asks Mélanie. A resident, a Golden in her arms, says. “Yes I had a doggie. He was brown like that. One day he escaped, and the whole neighborhood was upside down“.
Mélanie will be back in two weeks for another animal mediation session. Between each session, the residents forget him. But at each session, they find the benefits provided by the presence of these animals.