Having a life-changing and very often, life-limiting, disability brings all kinds of challenges. Help is at hand from a small charity based in West Sussex called Canine Partners, and they train assistance dogs to transform the lives of people with disabilities across Great Britain.
Canine Partners was founded in 1990 by Anne Conway, assistance dogs enthusiast and dog welfare campaigner, and Liz Ormerod, a vet and animal-assisted therapy expert. They were joined by occupational therapist, Nicky Pendleton, who brought expertise in the field of disability, and Roger Jefcoate, who sponsored the training of the first three dogs in 1994. After several years spent working from various premises in Hampshire, in 2003 Canine Partners bought a polo yard and farm with outbuildings in Heyshott, near Midhurst, in West Sussex and set about converting it to specialist facilities. The training centre was officially opened in 2005 by the Charity’s Patron, HRH The Duke of Gloucester and now boasts a state-of-the-art accommodation block which is fully accessible for people with disabilities when they attend the two-week residential training course.
We have all, at some time, been guilty of ignoring someone in a wheelchair while continuing a conversation with their carer or partner. This is often due to the sheer ease of eye level contact, but is also a response to a reluctance to engage with someone with an obvious disability, whether out of misguided sympathy or sheer embarrassment. Imagine how the person in the wheelchair feels: invisible and unimportant, which in turn increases their lack of self confidence.
Now let’s rerun that scenario but adding in a medium to large sized dog standing next to the wheelchair, wearing a purple jacket declaring that it is a canine partner. Suddenly passers-by, instead of looking away, smile and stop to ask the person in the wheelchair all about their dog. The canine partner has removed the invisible barriers and social interaction begins again.
In addition to the social benefits of having a dog trained by Canine Partners beside your wheelchair when out and about, there is the practical help the dog can provide for everyday household chores that are second nature to most of us but are huge obstacles to those who have severely restricted movements of their limbs. How many times do you drop your pen or your keys on the floor? Think of the number of times you open the fridge to take out a bottle of milk, or open a drawer to grab a pair of socks. And then there’s the washing. Loading and unloading a washing machine is something we all do without even giving it a minute’s thought – it’s so easy . . . for able bodied-people. These simple tasks become huge mountains for wheelchair users, who cannot bend forward in the chair for fear of toppling over, and who may not have the strength in their hands and arms to use the handle on a washing machine door. Many of them cannot open any doors, including the front and back door of their property; meaning they are virtually trapped in their own home until their carer or partner is around to open and close doors for them. With a canine partner, that reliance on other humans is removed, and the wheelchair user is able to retain their independence, which is so important for self-esteem and confidence.
All the common everyday tasks that most of us do thousands of times a day can be willingly performed by a dog specially trained by Canine Partners. The dogs are trained to help within the house with picking up dropped items; retrieving mobile phones, remote controls, medication, the post and even their own lead or food bowl. They can fetch crutches or help their disabled owner to swing their legs onto a sofa or bed. They will open cupboard doors, fridge doors, in fact any door within the house that has a handle that can have a special tug rope attached to it or that can be easily pushed down by the dogs’ paws. Drawers can be opened, named items of clothing removed and drawers shut again afterwards (canine partners are very tidy dogs!). Even washing machines present no problem to these dogs, who are trained to use their teeth to unlatch the door and pull it open. They will then proceed to remove the washing in the machine, item by item, handing it to the person in the wheelchair. In some cases, the dogs will pull a specially adapted washing basket on wheels outside and hand pegs to their owner, thus removing the need for any strenuous stretching or pulling, and allowing complete independence.
Some of the larger dogs can be trained to help a person transfer from a bed to a wheelchair or vice versa by standing in the brace position allowing the person to steady themselves by placing their hands gently on the dog. Very often, someone who has limited mobility has great difficulty sitting themselves up in bed or getting themselves out of bed without additional help from another person. A canine partner can help by grabbing one end of a tug toy while their owner holds the other thus the dog gently pulls the person from a lying to an upright sitting position, or pulls them from a sitting position until they are standing. This level of independence offered by the canine partner has on many occasions meant that the need for a carer at night has been drastically reduced and, in some cases, removed altogether.
This freedom from reliance on another human being is so important, as Lorna Marsh, who has cerebral palsy and depends on canine partner Eli, explains: “In the evening I often have a couple of hours on my own while my carer is on a break. This is when Eli truly comes into his own. He does not leave my side. The moment I drop anything he is right there. If the landline rings he gets it with no command. I like to sit watching TV with the armrest of my wheelchair up, which I could never do before because I had no way of getting them back down again. But now Eli can put the armrest down, I can truly relax. He passes me the TV remote and then takes my shoes and socks off. When it comes to bedtime he pulls the duvet over the top of me, gives me a hug and then goes to his own bed.”
In addition to being wonderful conversation openers, canine partners offer practical help to their disabled owners when they leave the house. The dogs are trained to push the buttons at pedestrian crossings; and the disabled buttons outside some shops allowing the doors to open automatically. When in banks or building societies, the dogs can hand over items to the cashier and then hand them back to their owners when finished. They can even retrieve money, receipt and sometimes the bank card from cash machines, although they have not yet learned how to punch in the pin numbers! Even seemingly trivial tasks such as posting a letter, which can be virtually impossible for someone in a wheelchair or who has poor balance, can be undertaken by a canine partner.
“When we are out in town Byron is able to press buttons for a pedestrian crossing, a lift or automatic doors,” says Kate Cross, who has a degenerative condition that affects her joints, skin and internal organs. “This saves me having to stretch and reduces the strain on my shoulders. In the bank or post office he is able to pass things over the counters that are often too high for me to reach comfortably. Everything he does makes my life easier and helps to reduce my risk of injury and my levels of fatigue.”
In shops and supermarkets the dogs will help by picking up items from the shelves such as tins, packets, cartons and even wrapped vegetables. When it comes to paying for the goods, the dogs again come into their own by taking the items and placing them on the cashier’s counter, then offering the purse to the cashier. They will then take the purse back plus the receipt and give them to their owner. They have yet to learn how to pack the shopping, but they do more or less everything else. As you can imagine, this makes a shopping trip far more fun than it usually is, and according to those people who have a canine partner, it takes four times as long to do the shopping due to all the people who want to come and talk to the partnership! Ice broken again.
That is not the end, however, of the canine partner’s talents. The Charity trains the dogs for a very important, potentially life-saving response. If their disabled owner should topple out of their wheelchair – unfortunately a situation that happens quite often – the dogs will retrieve a mobile phone that is in a bag somewhere on the chair and bring it to the person. The dogs are also trained to problem solve, and if they think additional help is required, they will bark continuously for attention or even run to get help. This situation has happened on several occasions, and the dog has been able to find someone and bring them back to their owner quickly enough to avoid any more injury or distress.
Not content with doing all of these tasks, the dogs are trained to help undress their owners. Imagine if your arms and hands were so weak that you could not pull off your socks or jacket. Ordinarily you would need to wait until there was another person around who was willing to help you; which robs you again of your independence but is also quite a humiliating and sometimes degrading experience. With a canine partner there are no worries on that score. The dogs can remove socks, jackets, jumpers and cardigans as well as hats. They can even fetch your slippers afterwards, and pipe if required!
So who trains these wonder dogs? Canine Partners is a national charity that trains assistance dogs to transform the lives of people with disabilities and has its headquarters and training centre near Midhurst in West Sussex. The Charity is celebrating its 21st anniversary in 2011, and aims to place 40 more trained dogs during the year bringing the total number of canine partners in Great Britain to 220.
More than 1.2 million people in the UK use a wheelchair and a significant number of those would benefit from a canine partner. The dogs are carefully matched to the applicant’s needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging. Canine Partners aims to train dogs to meet the needs of people with even the most complex disabilities including members of HM Armed Forces. The Charity receives no government funding and relies solely on support from the public. The cost of a canine partner from selection through to the end of its working life – covering puppy training, client assessment, advanced training, training with the partner and all aftercare costs – is £20,000. But for those who are already benefiting, a canine partner is priceless as Kate Cross sums up: “I have not just benefited from the practical help Byron has given me, I actually feel like a totally different person since we were partnered together. I have a purpose in life. I can now live a more ordinary life thanks to a very extraordinary dog – my canine partner, Byron.”
There are many ways that the public can help Canine Partners to train more of these special dogs to help people with disabilities lead a more independent life. For just £1 a week you can sign up to their Adopt A Puppy scheme and receive regular updates and photos on one of the Charity’s newest recruits learning to be an assistance dog. Or you can leave a legacy in your Will. Legacies are vital to the continuation of the Charity and can help secure its future for many years to come. You can also give your time by volunteering to be a puppy parent , looking after, and becoming involved in the early training of, one of their young puppies.
For further information about Canine Partners, please visit www.caninepartners.org.uk or call 08456 580480.