Irish assistance dogs: "The change in my life has been unbelievable"
Dogs might be man's best friend, but these highly-trained assistant animals are more than just companions - they're a lifeline for their disabled owners
Published 04/08/2015 | 02:30
Teenager Danny Millar never has to pick his dirty clothes off the bedroom floor and bring them to the washing machine - his dog, Fergus does it for him. Fergus can not only open and close doors and find the 15-year-old's phone on request - he even helps Danny undress.
Best of all, Fergus gives Danny, who has cerebral palsy, the independence every teenager yearns for.
"Before Fergus, I've always needed someone from my family to take me out," Danny explains. With Fergus, I'll be able to go out without my family so I should become more independent eventually.
"I'm learning to use the bus, DART and Luas with Fergus so things are definitely looking up!"
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder which affects the motor-control centre in the brain and can cause poor muscle tone, difficulties in walking and speaking, balance and depth perception and unsteady hands, as well as problems with grasping and reaching.
Fergus, a highly trained golden retriever, has quite literally, become Danny Millar's right-hand man.
"I can't walk long distances without some help. I also have limited speech," says Danny, from Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow. Danny first heard about Assistance Dogs on a sailing trip three years ago when he met a young wheelchair user who had one.
"My mum, who loves dogs, thought it was a great idea because that dog helped his owner a lot."
When Danny's mum Anne asked the family where they'd gotten their dog, she learned about Dogs for the Disabled, a registered charity based near the Co Cork village of Blarney, which trains and donates the dogs to the people who need them.
Clients, who range in age from six to 70, have a variety of conditions from severe physical disability to mobility issues, genetic abnormalities, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida.
Set up in 2007, Dogs for the Disabled, which depends entirely on fundraising and donations, has a waiting list of five years for its dogs, each of which take up to two years - and cost €15,000 to breed and train.
Its dogs are very different to Guide Dogs - co-founder Jennifer Dowling explains that they're trained as Task Dogs (like Fergus), Stability Dogs (to help primarily with walking) and companion, or Therapy Dogs.
"Task dogs are trained to do things like pull, retrieve and touch. They'll pick up things dropped on the floor by their master, for example a phone, credit card or pen.
"They can pull wet laundry out of the washing machine and help to put it on a clothes horse or into the tumble dryer and hand it to you or help people take off clothes such as a jacket, trousers or socks.
"They're also trained to retrieve or touch, so they'll get the phone when it rings, or touch an alarm button with a paw or nose to let the emergency services know there's a crisis.
"We had a client in Cork who fell from her wheelchair. Her dog was able to press the alarm button to alert the emergency services and push another button to let them into the house.
"We have another client who fell from his wheelchair and the dog didn't just get him a pillow and blanket - they also got him his mobile phone so he could ring for help.
"They're trained to respond when the owner is in distress. They're also trained to touch the button on a pedestrian crossing.
"It's all about giving the client independence by providing a dog to do tasks they're unable to do.
"We've a client with cerebral palsy, who at 29 years of age had never been out of her home on her own.
"Within 12 months of getting the dog she's working full-time and out of the house every day. Her life has been transformed."
Clients come to the Dogs for the Disabled Centre from all over Ireland to learn how to work as a team with their animal. "They come from Dublin to Donegal and from Skibbereen to Galway for the one-week residential training course.
"While they're in training we push them out of their comfort zone and get them to do as much as they can physically with the dogs.
"They learn to use the dog as a tool to improve their quality of life - otherwise the animals are just expensive pets," says Dowling.
After spending most of her career working with Guide Dogs for the Blind in Ireland and the UK, she set up Dogs for the Disabled after realising that there was no canine support service here for people with a disability other than, for example, for people with visual impairment or autism.
However, having Dogs for the Disabled dog is a two-way street, she points out - "owners must also feed, care for, walk and most of all, love the dog." Danny Millar spent a week in Cork, learning how to work with Fergus, before taking him home.
As part of the training, Danny lived with Fergus for about a week in accommodation provided by the charity, whose patron is comedian Graham Norton.
"I had to learn all the commands and the hand signals for sit, down, stay, wait, standing and here.
"We were brought out to the local park to let Fergus free run and then come to the sound of a whistle. In the afternoon, we were brought into town to walk around the busy streets, crossing at a pedestrian crossing and generally keeping safe together. I had to groom and feed Fergus every day - I still do," says Danny, who has had Fergus for nearly two months now.
"Every day we get better working together. He helps me walk much better than I can without him and helps me to climb stairs that I am not able to do without him. I have to walk Fergus every day, so I think my walking is getting stronger.
"When I'm at home, Fergus will lie beside me, so he is great company. I never feel alone when he's beside me. I love it when he puts his head on my knee. He sleeps at the end of my bed, like a big teddy bear.
"Even though it has only been a few weeks, I wouldn't like to be without Fergus."
For 34-year-old Lynn Owens, from Mallow, Co Cork, the arrival of her dog Fern last February was the beginning of a whole new life.
Until her early 20s, Owens was perfectly healthy and working in her family's business in the town, the landmark Hibernian Hotel.
However, an aneurism on her spinal cord in 2003 left her with limited mobility in her arms and legs.
Fern is a three-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever.
"She's a Task Dog which means she'll empty the washing machine for me, collect the post and get my phone or keys for me if I need them," Owens explains.
"If I drop anything, she'll pick it up. She'll go in under the bed and retrieve my slippers or a book or phone or a lipstick!
"She makes the house happy too because she's great company - she's a brilliant companion and it feels like she is talking to me. She's so obedient and it's lovely to have a dog who is understanding of your needs," says Owens.
"The change in my life has been unbelievable."
Thanks to his Swiss shepherd Feebie, Paul McGuinness from the East Cork town of Midleton is confident about his planned move to independent accommodation as part of a special programme run by Abode.
The 26-year-old, who has lived at home all his life, has cerebellar ataxia, which affects his balance, coordination and muscle control. "I'm mobile, but I use a wheelchair as back-up," explains Paul, to whom Feebie was assigned in February 2014.
"Feebie is my Stability Dog. She wears a harness with a handle and I hold on to that. If I get a wobble I just pull on the handle and it steadies me.
"The funny thing is that Feebie seems to know before I do that I'm going to wobble! I think she senses it and then she braces herself to give me support."
Before Feebie arrived, says Paul, he was quite wary of walking on his own.
"I've had quite a few falls over the years, so I didn't go out as much as I do now."
Also because his gait was not fluid, people would assume he was drunk, he recalls. "However, now that I have Feebie, people realise that I am not drunk but that I have a physical disability.
"She's a good friend and she's great company. Next September I move into a studio apartment in Abode, and Feebie will move with me."
Feebie's training is being stepped up to accommodate the move.
"She's currently being trained to do tasks like get my walking stick or pick up my phone or the remote control and she will learn to open and close doors and turn on or off lights.
"She's great company and provides security when I walk with her. I feel safe and I wouldn't walk outside without her. I wouldn't do it - it'd simply be too risky."
The charity trains about 20 dogs a year - it has trained and assigned some 120 animals since it was established.
Dogs for the Disabled, which is not in receipt of any State funding - despite costing €300,000 a year to run - employs three full-time staff and two part-time trainers.
It oversees two prison programmes - a breeding programme at the Dóchas Women's Prison in Mountjoy and a training scheme at the open, low security prison at Shelton Abbey.
"Two litters are born at Dóchas annually. Female prisoners, who have been hand-picked by the prison governor, look after bitches in pup. Later they care for, and educate puppies till they're about seven-weeks-old," says Dowling. "The puppies and mothers get undivided attention - and the puppies in particular have a ball!"
For the past two-and-a-half years, a group of Shelton Abbey inmates who have been hand-picked by the prison governor train up to eight dogs on a continual basis.
The charity's trainers work with the men, teaching them how to train the dogs. To date some 30 dogs have been successfully trained through this programme.
Meanwhile Dogs for the Disabled needs a new home - the charity is currently renting a large bungalow outside the village, but as this is due to be sold, it's currently looking for a new premises, with a view to eventually owning its own wheelchair-accessible permanent facility which is equipped with crucial facilities such as hoists to lift clients out of their wheelchairs.
But that will take more than bucket collections and voluntary donations - so isn't it about time for the State to step in?
If you'd like to get involved with the charity, you can find out more at dogsfordisabled.ie or make a donation at dogsfordisabled.ie/donate.