Friday 13 December 2019

Irish people gush about their canine companions

Caroline Allen chats to people that depend on their canine companions for guidance, support and most importantly, love.

John Byrne and ROxy
John Byrne and ROxy
Fia with her companion dog Sasha
PJ Hough and his constant companion Paddy
John Byrne
PJ Hough and his constant companion Paddy
Bernadette Brady holding Kizzie with Cally and Orna

Caroline Allen

Some are ordinary dogs doing extraordinary things. Others are multi-faceted professionals. Whether they're pets that instinctively empathise with human emotions or highly trained service dogs, canine companions can change lives.

From combating exam stress to helping people cope with frightening conditions such as epilepsy and narcolepsy, the power of the dog is increasingly being explored and harnessed.

While the Irish may not be known for puppy love to the same degree as some other nations, the powerful bond many enjoy with their four-legged friends is increasingly being recognised. President Michael D Higgins' Bernese mountain dogs, Shadow and Bród, have posed for photo shoots at Aras an Uachtaran, while actress Saoirse Ronan has spoken in the past about how much she has missed her dog when she's away from home.

Skype isn't just great for keeping Irish emigrants in touch with their families and friends – it's also being used by some to chat with their prized pooches.

And economist David McWilliams' tale in this magazine of a 3,000km odyssey for a family holiday to Croatia to accommodate Labrador Sasha, will resonate with many, who can't imagine being separated from their dogs, even if only for a week or two.

Here, we ask some proud owners about the special bonds they have with their animals.

 

PJ Hough and Paddy

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PJ Hough and his constant companion Paddy

"I was born on the farm that I now work between Birr and Portumna in Co Tipperary. Paddy, our terrier type dog, is with me throughout the day, every day.

He strayed into my daughter Catherine's house in Galway just over two years ago. She was emigrating so she brought him here and he settled in very quickly.

We have two other dogs, a collie and a springer spaniel that are also strays, but they're mainly outdoor dogs. This fellow is different. He stays in all night and is a real creature of habit. When I have the breakfast finished, he would go out with me and stay with me all day. He likes to travel with me in the tractor and the jeep and waits until the front door is opened for him – he won't get in the back. If I have a front seat passenger, he gets in between us. He sits up on his hind legs with one paw on the armrest, like a human or a meerkat.

Our three children have grown up and left home: two are abroad and the other is in Dublin and comes home at weekends. My wife, Anne Marie, works three days a week. I'm not used to a quiet house or being on my own. Farming has got a bit more solitary nowadays so it's great to have Paddy, who came as the last of the children was leaving, for company.

He generally follows me from shed to shed and out around the farm, but never gets in the way. He sleeps on the couch and makes his way up to the bed whenever he gets the chance. Anne Marie is very fond of him too, but it's me he generally follows around.

I've never had a dog like him before and would really miss him if he wasn't here. He's a good watchdog and very mannerly. When Anne Marie leaves down his bowl, he won't eat until he's called. He's very biddable, clever, loyal, reliable and a great character. You'd never feel alone when you have Paddy."

 

Elizabeth McNicholas and Bart

"When I got Bart, my labradoodle, through Irish Dogs for the Disabled, I could walk a bit. I developed a spinal condition and other problems when I was doing my Leaving Cert. I woke up one morning and couldn't move. Now I'm in a wheelchair.

Bart is the reason I can stay in college. I'm from Lucan and have just finished third year of a teacher training course in home economics and Irish at St Angela's College, Sligo.

I got Bart when I was starting college. If I drop anything, he picks it up. If I lose my phone, he looks for it. He helps me get dressed and undressed. He comes into school with me when I'm teaching.

I've got helpers though I prefer getting him to do things as it gives me a greater sense of independence.

I live in campus accommodation and everyone loves him. He opens and closes doors, switches lights on and off, puts clothes into the washing machine and takes them out. He takes letters from the postman as he's putting them through the letterbox and brings them to me. He barks on command if I need help.

One day I fell out of the wheelchair on the way into college and he secured the wheelchair and helped me back into it. If he sees someone else in a wheelchair or on crutches, he will go over and try to help them too.

Bart goes to the cinema and concerts with me. He sleeps in bed with me and is usually with me 24/7. He gets upset if he's left behind and worries about me.

I live with chronic pain and undergo a lot of major operations and it's fantastic to have him with me during the recovery periods and at night when I can't go out. If I'm having a bad day, he will do something funny to make me laugh. Even if he's not with me for a second, I feel lost.

Bart was always brilliant but we've got closer over the years. He does things without commands – if I take my shoes off, he assumes I want to take my socks off.

He's very funny. If he wants a treat, he knocks one off the table and grabs the sofa before anyone else can. He's my best friend: the best thing that ever happened to me. I love him so much."

 

Kevin Kelly and Miles

"I'm blind and got Miles, a Labrador retriever cross, through the Irish Guide Dogs' Association in 2008.

I'm parliamentary assistant to Senator Mary Ann O'Brien who has several dogs of her own. Miles is the first guide dog to work at Leinster House.

I lost my sight because of retinal detachment when I was 14. I was living in Donegal and had a visual memory of my school, which made it easier. It was when I moved to Dublin to study journalism, followed by a master's degree in PR, that things became more difficult.

The day that I finished my first-year exams in DCU I travelled to Cork for intensive training. My case was somewhat more difficult as guide dogs are generally trained to walk in the centre of the footpath, which is fine in Dublin, but there aren't a lot of paths in Inishowen. What was needed was a dog that would adjust from a hectic college environment to a quieter backdrop in Donegal. I'm quite tall so I needed a large dog because of the speed at which I walk.

Miles proved to be the perfect candidate. From the moment I met him, when he was 17 months old, I never had a day's problem with him. Miles had a little problem with his gut almost three years ago due to something he picked up when he was out. He had to have an operation. As a typical lad, I don't show a terrible deal of emotion but it was like having a really close family member who was sick. When he was away, the house felt empty and I missed him enormously.

Miles gives me a great sense of security. He has made a world of difference to my life. With a cane, you're rolling it over as you're walking, and if there's an obstacle, you have to hit it to notice it, which is not very relaxing. Miles goes out and around any obstacles without me having any idea what they are so I can really concentrate on what I'm doing.

He also makes it possible to walk up the street while having a conversation with a friend. Miles has come on airplanes with me. The simplest of tasks would take so much longer if I didn't have him. I don't think I would have pushed myself as much if he weren't by my side – I would be a lot less confident."

 

Bernadette Brady and PEATA dogs Orna, Cally and Kizzie

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Bernadette Brady holding Kizzie with Cally and Orna

"My mother Mary was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia in 2001. I'm her only child and was privileged to be her carer at home for six years.

Dementia is frequently called 'the long goodbye' and I can attest to the heartbreaking accuracy of this stark description. I've watched her slip gradually and consistently into the grasp of this cruel, terminal, degenerative brain disease. My vibrant, energetic, joyful mother and best friend has now succumbed almost completely to this horrendous disease.

She's currently in the end stages and has been in long-term care in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook, for the past seven years. She hasn't recognised me as her daughter since 2004.

I visit daily because I want her to feel loved, in whatever capacity she's capable of understanding, during these last years of her life.

Sadly, we rarely have any personal visitors but we've been very privileged to enjoy the support of five wonderful visitors every Wednesday, 52 weeks of the year. Wednesday is the happiest day of our week and the only day that I genuinely look forward to. Our friends from PEATA Irish Therapy Dogs come to see us. Joan Courtney and Monica Waldron visit with Orna, a black Labrador; Cally a Labrador retriever and Kizzie, a papillion.

The sound of their paws walking down to our room lifts my heart like nothing else in the world. My heart breaks every day I see my mother. That heartbreak has intensified as the years have passed. Nothing will ever ease that pain. But Orna, Cally and Kizzie seem to sense sad and broken hearts as only dogs really can, and have connected with me on a deep personal and emotional level. Their comforting silence speaks a thousand words of compassion and healing.

I sit on the floor with Orna and Cally and just be with them, feeling my sadness lift and my grief soften. Kizzie is a bundle of joyful energy and balances Orna and Cally's calm magnificently. She delivers an abundance of 'Kizzie kisses' and never fails to make me laugh. Kizzie's joie de vivre is a healing and energising force.

Sadly, my mother cannot connect with her surroundings in any meaningful way anymore. How she would have relished these weekly visits from our PEATA friends, as she was so deeply passionate about dogs.

My heart is always lighter on a Wednesday, my sadness less paralysing. The healing power of those 12 paws and three wagging tails is indescribable and immeasurable. It's our greatest joy on this saddest of journeys."

 

Fia Flynn and Sasha

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Fia with her companion dog Sasha

"My dog Sasha, a golden retriever, has been part of my life since she was a pup and is being trained to be my autism service dog. I have autism, ADHD, Aspergers and social integration problems.

Before I got Sasha at the beginning of 2013, I would go into town in Sligo with my mum but I was never happy, as I always felt judged.

I have always got on better with animals than people. Sasha comes with me everywhere. She acts as my boundary and senses when I'm feeling conflicted and going to lose my temper, calming me down. Before I got Sasha, I'm embarrassed to say my temper would build up and I would cause a scene and everyone would start looking at me. Other times, I would keep things bottled up.

Sasha gives out a calm sensation when she senses something is wrong with me and rests her head on my lap and looks up at me with big wide eyes. Immediately my anxiety levels go down. If I'm walking along and am stressed, she makes me stop and looks at me for two minutes as much as to say, 'When you are ready, we can go'.

She lets me express myself. Because of Sasha, who was recently nominated for an Irish Kennel Club Golden Paw Hero Dog award, I'm more open and can experience so much more. Whatever I feel, she feels but her happiness takes over and gets into me.

She is so affectionate and we have a lot of fun times together. We go for lots of long walks and to restaurants where she lies down patiently until I'm done. I've brought her on trains and buses, to doctor's appointments and to the shops. She has her own bed but doesn't like it – she prefers to sleep with me.

Sasha and I have a very strong bond. I hate being without her. When I leave the room in my mother's house, she goes looking for me. I'm hoping to move out on my own and that is something I could never have thought of doing without Sasha – I found it scary to be left on my own.

Before I got her I used to depend on mum to makes choices for me and to organise my schedule. I've grown up with Sasha and am now taking control of my own life. She has given me more independence and freedom."

 

Colm Whooley and Cassie

"I've had dogs all my life but never a dog as amazing as Cassie, my 13-year-old golden retriever. I got Cassie as an eight-week-old pup with the idea of getting her trained so she could accompany me to work – I'm CEO of Spinal Injuries Ireland which is in the grounds of the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

Cassie has just retired but every morning she travelled into work with my wife Caroline who works in the hospital, and I. She tucked herself in behind my wheelchair and followed me everywhere.

She is the most obedient and gentle dog I have ever come across. She loved her routine and left the house with us every morning at 8am. On arrival, she went into every office and greeted the staff before going into my office where she lay at the front of my desk.

People are often stressed coming into my office – they're often family members whose son or daughter has been involved in an accident. Cassie acted as an icebreaker as they weren't expecting to see a large golden retriever. If people became upset, she would go over and stand beside them and they would pet her.

She also visited patients in the hospital and people still ask about her and wonder why she isn't behind me.

Once home she became a typical golden retriever, full of energy and playing with balls – one staff member who saw her in action at home couldn't believe it was the same dog.

She was also a great watchdog.

I had to retire Cassie, who I nominated for an Irish Kennel Club Golden Paw Hero Dog Award, as her sight and hearing are not great and she can no longer jump into the car. Her two dishes are still in my office and I find myself constantly looking under my desk for her. The dynamics of the office has changed.

Outside my work life, Cassie has also been a constant companion including when we went kayaking. Cassie's place was always at the top of the boat. She has been my shadow for the past 13 years."

 

Ciarán Behan and Lola

"I've been living with bipolar disorder since being diagnosed in September 2011. Living in Mayo, I'm an ambassador for See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership and the Green Ribbon campaign, which aims to get people talking openly about mental health problems. I also blog about mental health.

My four-year-old golden retriever Lola helps keep me sane. I did a lot of research before getting Lola in 2009. I thought that a golden retriever would be perfect because they're so placid. Lola was eight weeks old when I got her and she means the world to me.

We have a lot of one-to-one time. If I am ever anxious, she calms me. Sometimes my leg twitches slightly and when that happens, she puts her head onto my lap. She knows if I haven't had a good day and will go out of her way to cheer me up by running around the house or getting a ball so that I can throw it for her.

She also knows when to give me some space. This is all done instinctively on her part – she never had any training.

When she was around two, I had to go to Dublin and left her with a dog minder. When I came back there was something wrong with her back paw. I brought her home and she couldn't get out of her bed and she didn't take her food or play with her toys. I said I would leave her on her bed and went to watch TV. Forty seconds later, I heard a big yelp – she had tried to get up and go over to sit beside me but hadn't been able to make it. That's the type of dog she is. She is my extension, my left arm. She radiates unconditional love and would never judge you.

We have a really strong bond that has built up over time. I bring her as many places as I can such as the beach but I think we're very bad for facilitating dogs in this country. I was in Rome and it was lovely to see dogs everywhere. It would be nice to be able to bring Lola with me to a cafe or the post office.

I can't imagine life without Lola and if anything happened to her, I don't think I could bring myself to get another dog. I'm just so attached to her."

 

John Byrne and Roxy

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John Byrne

"I live in a tent in Dublin city. I've been homeless for 26 years after having problems with my stepfather. I rescued my three-and-a-half year old Pomeranian, Roxy, as a pup after she was abandoned in Ballymun.

She stays with me and my rabbit on Henry Street every day. She goes on her little walks half way up the street – every security guard on the street knows her.

She likes getting a tennis ball thrown for her, but she'll always come back to me. She sits in the shade if it's too warm for her. I don't have to put her on a lead because she obeys every rule, even when crossing the road.

From the time she was a pup, she was always easy enough to look after. When a guy came over and gave me a boot in the head a while back, she started attacking him. You have to watch out for the small dogs. I'd be lost without her.

We've a great bond. If she hears the least little sound at night from anyone going around the streets, she goes mad. I feed her before we go out and when we get back – she's better fed than I am, but we get through.

After the stories appeared in the papers about me jumping into the Liffey to rescue my pet rabbit, after someone threw it into the river, I was promised everything, but nothing has changed. I can't get accommodation with my animals – I have four dogs – as landlords won't accept pets anymore, which is stupid. All I want is somewhere I can live with Roxy and the other animals. There are houses getting knocked down right, left and centre. In England you're entitled to take your animals with you into a hostel.

A lot of people in this country don't care about animals. At the time I rescued the rabbit, I had a Jack Russell with me but she won't come out with me anymore – she's afraid. I also have a terrier but it started snapping at people. They stay with my girlfriend when I go out.

I think the world of my dogs; they're just like human beings to me. This one – Roxy – thinks she owns the street. People come over to me more because of her, especially country people. I have regulars that come over to us every week.

Roxy has been on the streets with me since she was a pup. She's the love of my life – she's my baby."

 

Cathy Kelly and Dinky Star, scamp Blossom & Licky Heart

"I grew up with dogs and adore them. I guess there aren't too many authors who dedicate books to their dogs as I did, once, to my beloved golden lab, who is sadly in doggie heaven and was on earth with me for 13 years.

For the past four years, my family and I have been blessed with three adorable Jack Russell sisters: Dinky Star, Scamp Blossom and Licky Heart – so called because she has a perfect caramel heart on her soft, white coat. The other two are all caramel and we just adore them.

I can't imagine a life without dogs and cannot bear to watch shows where they are badly treated. They are such joyous, loyal beings and at night, all three battle to snuggle on top of me on the couch. It's very hard to crochet when this is happening.

Therapeutically, I can curl up on their bed with them and feel any anxiety flow out of me. I do believe in the healing power of animals and the gift it is when these creatures give you their unconditional love. Science has proved that petting dogs lowers your blood pressure – that must be why mine is low.

I just wish people knew the responsibility dogs are and understood that before getting a cute puppy, and then locking it outside forever when it grows up and stops being so cute and furry."

 

Ella De Guzman and Louis & Raquel

Ella owns the Siopaella consignment stores in Temple Bar with her boyfriend Steve Ryan, an animal welfare fundraiser.

"Louis and Raquel, our two rescue dogs, mean the world to us. We adopted Louis, a schnauzer-poodle cross, in the summer of 2008 through a non-profit rescue, Cross Our Paws. He was originally from Portland, Oregon, and had been found wandering the streets. He was transported to Vancouver where I was living at the time.

I adopted him when he was approximately two years old and brought him with us when we moved to Dublin, so he's a well travelled dog.

Raquel was a rescue too – an unwanted puppy from Cavan. She's a Kerry Blue-lab mix. We adopted her when she was only eight weeks old.

Both Louis and Raquel come to work with us every day. Louis is generally in our Temple Lane South store and Raquel usually resides in our Crow Street store. They are wonderful additions to our family and to our Siopaella family. They star on our branding too.

Many customers come in and specifically seek out the dogs for belly rubs. Louis is especially good at calming down stressed out people like myself. He knows if I get too agitated as he immediately will come up and sit next to me, whether it is at my desk at work or at home.

Raquel doesn't deal with stress as well and generally hides if she notices anything going awry. She's so hilarious though, and is definitely the clown of the two. She makes all of us laugh and is known for being a bit crazy and overly amorous with customers and staff alike.

Louis is more the calmer gentleman. It's crazy how he can sense stress though, and I actually only started noticing it this year. He is really in tune with my voice and reactions and is the best at calming my nerves.

Both our dogs go everywhere with us. Every day we walk to and from the shops, stopping off at a local park for some off-leash time. Every now and then they get pampered by yours truly – I have almost mastered the art of dog grooming. Otherwise they are taken to Mutt Ugly for professional grooming.

At night they both sleep in our room: Louis in his own bed and Raquel snoozing away under our bed.

They are definitely like my furry babies, seeing as I don't have human babies of my own.

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