Samantha David is a freelance journalist and writes for various publications including BBC Online, the Sunday Times, the FT, Living France, everything France, and France Magazine

Samantha David, writer

Miscellaneous Animals - articles by Samantha David


Dogs for the Disabled

As Frances Hay became increasingly crippled with bone cancer she noticed that her dog, who had until then been just a domestic pet, was trying to help her with certain basic tasks.

A confirmed dog-lover, Frances set about training Kim to do more advanced tasks by fostering her natural instincts to retrieve and pull. She succeeded beyond her expectations, and Kim became vitally important in maintaining Frances' mobility and independence.

Recognising that she had stumbled upon something which could benefit others, Frances founded Dogs for the Disabled in 1986, and the charity was formally registered in 1988.

Eleven years later, Dogs for the Disabled supports around 130 partnerships (qualified assistance dogs living and working with disabled clients), has 25 registered puppy walkers, 22 puppies at walk and is confident of qualifying 25 dogs this year.

Dogs come from various places. The charity is keen to use rescue dogs, and maintains links with centres which put suitable dogs forward from time to time. Sadly however, very few rescue dogs have the necessary combination of temperament, intelligence and physical attributes to be accepted for training. Also, since the ideal age to start training is between 12-14 months, very few rescue dogs are young enough to be considered.

Sometimes dogs are donated by people whose circumstances have changed, or by other assistance dog organisations. Kandy was one of these. She had originally been selected for training by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Eventually however, it was decided that she wasn't entirely cut out for the work and she was donated to Dogs for the Disabled.

Kandy may not have qualified as a Guide Dog, but she's anything but a failure. After further training, she qualified with Dogs for the Disabled and was matched in a partnership with Jamie. A year later, she went on to win the 1998 Companion Dog of the Year award.

Jamie's mother says, "Jamie has gone through a lot and Kandy has given him his independence and a reason to live. They're a perfect team."

"With Kandy by my side," says Jamie, "there's only one way to go, and that's up."

Dogs also find their way to Dogs for the Disabled as puppies. Again, some are donated by breeders although most are bought with funds raised by the charity. However, in order not to waste money training a dog who will not eventually qualify, the selection process (as for all dogs) is rigorous.

Puppies are allocated to one of the charity's registered puppy walkers, where they live as family pets and learn to cope with a wide variety of situations. Puppy walkers are in regular contact with the charity's supervisor and puppies are visited every month for progress assessments. During puppy walking, basic obedience and commands are taught, but the main aim is to produce a dog that is well socialised, confident and relaxed.

A year later they go to a training centre to be assessed. The coveted, smart, blue "student" jackets are only given to promising canine candidates but dogs from dedicated puppy walking schemes have a very high success rate and most puppies are accepted.

Dogs are currently trained at three centres around the country - Coventry, Exeter and Middlesborough - in partnership with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

170 dogs have already qualified and training is advancing all the time. Every client has different needs and the abilities of each dog are matched very carefully to their prospective partner so that each dog can be taught to do unique tasks as required.

This means that dogs sometimes surprise even their trainers. For example when Ann first applied to Dogs for the Disabled, she had been forced to give up breeding horses as she could no longer cope in the stables. But when Shep came along, he quickly learned to help with the horses; running underneath them with straps and girths, picking up grooming kit, passing tack and generally being a keen stable boy. Ann was able to keep horses once again.

Shep also proved himself an invaluable when Ann returned to teaching music. Apart from enabling her to actually get to work in the first place, he also delighted everyone by appearing to be a model student, sitting quietly during class and only talking to the children at the end of the lesson.

"One little girl came up and said she wished she was in a wheel chair like me," says Ann. "I was amazed. Who'd want to be like me? So I asked her why and she said she wanted to be ill like me so she could have a dog like Shep. I've never forgotten that moment. It was the first time since getting ill that I'd ever actually been envied."

Shep has now been retired but is still living with Ann and her new assistance dog Baron. "But Shep doesn't work any more," says Ann. He seems to know that Baron has taken over and that he can relax these days."

When the dogs qualify, they earn their luminous yellow jackets which, apart from making them more visible, will also make them instantly recognisable. But a yellow assistance jacket isn't just an identity badge, it's also a special pass, allowing dogs into places like libraries where dogs are normally banned.

Dogs for the Disabled dogs fetch named items (ie keys, telephone, emergency alarm), they retrieve (newspapers and letters from the letterbox), fetch (clothes, brushes, pens, purses, baskets etc) and bark on command to attract attention. They can also open and close doors, turn lights on/off, load/empty the washing machine, operate lifts and alarm systems, and carry shopping.

But having all learned the same core skills, every dog needs to learn individual specific tasks tailored to their partner, which makes training assistance dogs for wheelchair-users different from training dogs for the blind.

So when a newly qualified dog is introduced to a prospective partner, everyone is hoping for a good match. Sometimes the client is someone whose dog is retiring and sometimes it is a new client, but either way, this is a crucial meeting and unless the match is perfect the charity looks for another possible partnership.

Then starts a further period of training. Both sides of the partnership have things to learn and sometimes there are unique tasks to be learned. Dogs can be trained to assist with dressing and undressing, and with mobility if this is required. Some clients can walk with the support of a dog wearing a special stability harness, which obviously has to be learned together.

Partners also practice for emergencies. For example, dogs can be trained to help people if they fall over and can't get up again. The dog burrows underneath the person's tummy and pushes upwards gradually, and then stands very still so that the person can hang onto them for support as they push themselves to their feet.

But this training takes time and up until now, Dogs for the Disabled hasn't had purpose-built facilities. This however, is set to change. With funding of £597,595 from the National Lottery Charities Board, they have bought a kennels site near Banbury and work is in hand to transform it.

The new training centre will provide for the first time under one roof, accommodation for dogs, clients and staff, indoor and outdoor training areas, and of course all administration facilities.

This will enable the charity to train more dogs more quickly and to train partnerships at the centre. Live-in training will be more cost-effective and efficient. But perhaps the best news is that on-site training will allow partnership trainers to spend more one-to-one time with clients.

Apart from training dogs for new partnerships, Dogs for the Disabled has to keep up with the demand for dogs to replace those going into retirement. Hopefully the new centre will allow them to do this in tandem with reducing the waiting list - which is currently over a year long.

The new centre, whilst being secure, 100% wheelchair accessible and purpose-built for dogs, will also provide pleasant working surroundings for clients, dogs and staff - an important consideration.

Construction is already underway and fund-raising (£150,000 is needed to complete the centre) is going well. Dogs for the Disabled supporters are endlessly innovative and energetic and amongst all their schemes, are collecting used stamps, aluminium cans and phone cards. Dogs for the Disabled also publish their own magazine which is full of information about the charity's work and the new centre's progress.

Dogs for the Disabled aim to qualify their 200th dog during the year 2000 - a target they look set to meet. But, in the future, by January 2000 to be precise, Dogs for the Disabled will have their own training centre. Who knows how many dogs they'll be able to train then?

Wouldn't it be great if everyone in a heelchair could have a dog like Kandy?




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