Ellen Cook was only 60 when she was widowed, but you’d be hard pushed to find a more positive and determined woman. Her husband Martin died suddenly from a heart attack in February 2022 and two months later she lost her mother, Mary.
Despite the terrible turn of events, Ellen has built a life full of vigour and purpose – and part of that is joining in the joy of Give A Dog A Bone in Alloa, Scotland.
The unique project sees staff and their dogs welcome fellow animal lovers for a daily drop-in – and Ellen and her rescue border terrier Flo are regulars. She found the group by chance and hasn’t looked back.
“I only bought the local newspaper because my husband’s obituary was in there. As I was flicking through I saw that Give A Dog A Bone were offering massages and reflexology.
At that time, I was struggling to sleep and one day I parked up opposite and thought I’d pop in,” says Ellen.
“I walked in and burst into tears on one of the staff members, Angela, who’s got Ruby the dog. She’d only just started so I was really testing her training. But I managed to calm down and speak and had a coffee – and now I have a real bond with her.”
Now Ellen goes to chair yoga on a Thursday, enjoys reflexology sessions and loves the social side of what’s offered too.
“Chair yoga is a really fun, friendly class. I’ve actually been going with a broken arm and find it relaxing. Give A Dog A Bone has been a lifesaver over the last few months when I haven’t been able to get out and about as much.
"When I first went in I would sit on the couch alone, watching other people, so now when I see someone on their own I’ll go over and chat to them.”
Give A Dog A Bone is the brainchild of animal lover (and rescuer) Louise Russell. She has centres in Shawlands and Troon and her third in Alloa has become very popular, with up to 60 people dropping in each day.
“Our calling card is we want people to feel better when they leave than when they came in,” says Louise. “If you’re an animal lover – as I am – spending time with the dogs boosts your well-being.
"We go out of our way to make people feel safe and as an older, isolated adult it’s a big step to walk into a new place. The dogs are great ice-breakers, then we can break down barriers and see if they want to join in the activities too.
"As an older adult, you can feel invisible so we hire caring staff who can have real conversations and make people feel valued.
“We wanted to make Ellen feel welcome the moment she walked in because we want to become part of people’s lives. If a regular visitor doesn’t turn up, one of our staff members will check in with their relatives to make sure they’re OK.”
“Money raised through The Health Lottery has provided £30,000 for two years, so that’s a sizeable chunk towards the running costs of the Alloa centre.
"There are lots of community spaces, but what we do is unique, offering free activities for the over-60s, along with the companionship of the dogs. We also help older people with the finances to adopt a pet if they feel able to.”
“Give A Dog A Bone relies on grant funding, individual donations and community fundraisers and without every part of that jigsaw we just wouldn’t exist.
"We’re a real-life project, which is exactly the kind of good cause you're helping when you buy a ticket for The Health Lottery.”
And for Ellen, the project has provided companionship, healthy activities and an escape from isolation at a time when she needed it most. “Give A Dog A Bone has done so much for me and Flo and it’s given us so many positive things out of the negatives.”
Give A Dog A Bone factfile
Founded by Louise Russell in 2013
Alloa centre open Mon-Fri 11am-3pm
Tackling loneliness in older adults through animal companionship
£30,000 grant awarded using money raised through The Health Lottery supports project in Alloa
Free activities for over-60s include seated yoga, Spanish lessons, mindfulness and a monthly disco