We find out about the work of Canine Partners, the charity which trains up the nation’s favourite pet to transform the lives of disabled people right across the UK…
In George Square at the heart of Glasgow, people can’t help but stop and stare. Between businessmen striding to work, pensioners feeding pigeons, teens on skateboards and the teaming rain, a group of men and women gather, each accompanied by a dog in a purple jacket.
This is no doggy style coincidence. These are Canine Partners’ volunteer puppy parents for the west of Scotland, and their four-legged friends – Helena, Flynn, Lester, Elsa and Ella – are the next generation of assistance dogs.
Canine Partners places dogs with physically disabled people seeking a bit more freedom right across the country. This furry fivesome will eventually work with people to help retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, push the button at pedestrian crossings and even load and unload washing machines.
Before they get anywhere near their new owner, the dogs have to go through a rigorous training process, which is where the puppy parents come in.
Danny, Brian, Val, Karen and Lorraine, like other Canine Partners volunteers across the UK, will spend 18 months caring for the pups. They’ll train them and attend weekly puppy classes, run by the area’s trainer Bryony White in Paisley, to help the dogs learn the basics of being an assistance dog.
“It takes between 18 months and two years to train the dogs,” explains Bryony. “We have them for ‘primary school’, as I call it – puppy class – at eight weeks old. When they’re about 15 to 18 months old, depending on the dog, they go into advanced training. There’s a six-week assessment programme and then they’re matched with their partner, then it’s between four and six months for their advanced training. It’s very much tailored to the needs of the person they’ve been matched with. We’ve had a partner who rides, so their dog had to be trained around horses. It helps out around the horses now – carries the grooming kit, leads the horse out to the field, the lot!”
Today, the dogs are in Glasgow to get used to a busy city environment. Most are based in more rural areas, so pigeons and buses are new and exciting. Bryony and the puppy parent take the dog on a loop of the city’s busiest shopping street and even into a supermarket to see how they cope with the sights, sounds and smells around them.
The puppy parents master the basic training points with their dogs, such as house training and other basic commands. They also have to train them how to touch, tug and retrieve. Touch prepares them for things like opening doors, tugging is for undressing a person, while retrieving is essential for picking up dropped items. Throughout all of this, the dog’s health and wellbeing is paramount, and the charity supports them, even financially, for life.
Danny is playing puppy parent for the second time. He’s caring for and training one-year-old Flynn, a bright-eyed black Lab. While the parents can prepare the dogs for different situations and environments, Danny explains that there are some other issues the pooches will come up against.
“They can have problems with accents,” he says with a laugh. “I had an English friend come to stay and he told Flynn to go get his bowl. He came back with his ball!”
As Danny will testify, the hardest part of the parenting process is the day their dog is ready to move onto advanced training.
“The very first time a member of staff or a volunteer meets one of our partnerships face to face, that changes,” Bryon explains. “They see the difference that dog has made to their life, they all come back and go, ‘Do you know what? I’m still going to find it tough to give her up, but bring me my second one as fast as you can.’”
27-year-old Keith Mitchell and his golden Labrador-retriever cross Tilly are one of Canine Partners’ most recent pairings. Keith, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair full-time, says that his canine companion has changed his life completely.
“Because of my cerebral palsy, I have to be hoisted in and out of bed,” he explains. “If I drop things, I have difficulty picking them up, giving my wallet over at high counters and things. Tilly comes in and does these things for me that I have difficulty doing. She’s basically transformed my life.”
Keith had wanted a dog since he was a child, but it wasn’t until he moved into his own accommodation that he thought about it seriously. When a friend suggested an assistance dog, he quickly got in touch with Canine Partners and got started in the application process. Tilly arrived at his home last November.
Before, he needed a lot of support from carers and family. With small things like picking something up from the floor, he’d have to call a care worker for help. Now, Tilly steps in. It’s not just the practical side which Tilly helps with – she’s had a huge impact on Keith’s confidence, self-esteem and overall independence too.
“She’s given me that element of independence,” he says warmly. “I’m more of an outgoing person because of Tilly. I’m not as apprehensive now in a new situation because Tilly’s always there. The companionship is very important.
“I get out and about a lot more, I meet more people. And, genuinely, she’s given me the confidence to go out and do that kind of thing. She’s just made me a much more confident person.”
To find out more about applying for a dog, becoming a puppy parent or to donate to Canine Partners, head to www.caninepartners.co.uk or call 08456 580 480.
Enable Magazine, Sep/Oct 2012