Wednesday 23 January 2019

'Jamie has no friends in school. But Coco follows him everywhere' - How dogs have saved owners' lives

We all know pooches make loving pets - but some dogs seem to have special superpowers

Jamie McMahon with his dog Coco at home in Emo, Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Jamie McMahon with his dog Coco at home in Emo, Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Ciara O'Malley from Manulla, Castlebar, Co Mayo with her dog, "Hope" who lived up to her name. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Jamie McMahon and his dad Mark with Coco. Photo: Alf Harvey.

Arlene Harris

For the countless dog owners across the country, pooches provide love, loyalty and companionship that's a daily joy in their lives. For a select group, however, their dog is far more than just a best friend - it gives them confidence to face the world every day, provides comfort in times of grief, or is even a literal lifesaver.

Psychologist Peadar Maxwell says dogs make great companions as they are loving and devoted, but owners should not take this for granted. "Anyone thinking of having a dog should remember that they are living, feeling creatures who deserve a good life which includes the expense of veterinary care, exercise and loving attention," he says.

"Once that has been agreed, the benefits far outweigh the responsibility and investment involved. In fact, studies indicate that dogs help us with mood regulation, recovery from trauma or illness, and even with developing tolerance to allergens. There are other more obvious benefits too, such as company and increased rates of social interaction, as well as opportunities to exercise more. And when we spend time with or care for our dogs, we produce oxytocin, a feel-good chemical which is linked to lower blood pressure - but above all, dogs are our friends and companions, and that's good for us all, whether we live alone or with others."

Here, we meet three people who have had their lives transformed by a special dog…

Ciara O'Malley with her dog Hope. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin
Ciara O'Malley with her dog Hope. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin
Bekki Millar from Lisburn with her two dogs, Staffordshire Bull Terrier Mia and Honey. ©Press Eye/Darren Kidd
Bekki Millar wit Mia and Honey - she credits Mia with saving her life. ©Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Ciara & Hope

Ciara O'Malley from Manulla, Castlebar, Co Mayo with her dog, "Hope" who lived up to her name. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin

While Ciara O'Malley wasn't saved physically by her dog, she was definitely rescued in the emotional sense. The Mayo woman suffered a horrendous blow in June of last year when her boyfriend, David Gavin, went missing in Canada after getting into difficulty whilst swimming in a lake.

The search was stood down for a number of months due to snow and adverse weather conditions, and when it resumed in April of this year, David's body was recovered and brought back to Ireland.

While his girlfriend of 10 years will never get over his death, the gift of a puppy in the midst of her grief helped her to get through the worst period of her life.

"After David went missing, it was so utterly shocking," says the 28-year-old. "I couldn't work and moved in with my parents, as I was totally distraught. I went over to Canada with his family twice to help with the search, and it was heart-breaking to have to come home without him - or any news of him - both times.

"When I got back to Knock airport after the second attempt to try and find him, my friend met me and presented me with a little labradoodle puppy. At first I wasn't sure what to do, as I didn't think I'd be able to look after her, but I named her Hope - and as soon as she looked at me, I knew she would be good for me."

Ciara says that Hope lived up to her name, and she doesn't think she would have been able to cope so well if it hadn't been for the love and "intuition" of her dog.

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Ciara O'Malley with her dog Hope. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

"When you are grieving, you often don't want to see anyone and can't put into words how you are feeling, but dogs instinctively know that you are sad and will do what they can to comfort you," Ciara says. "Hope has been amazing right from the start - she gave me hope that we would find David, and we did. It was a terribly difficult situation and so sad bringing him home, but knowing Hope was waiting for me made it a bit easier.

"Over the past year, there were days when I felt like I couldn't move for sadness. Hope would just look at me and silently urge me to take her out for a walk, and that always made me feel better. It also helped that people would focus on her when we were out rather than me, as sometimes I couldn't cope with the attention, so it took the spotlight off me.

"Obviously I am still grieving for David, but Hope has definitely helped me to deal with it all. To be honest, I don't know if I would have been able to without her."


Jamie & Coco

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Jamie McMahon and his dad Mark with Coco. Photo: Alf Harvey.

Jamie McMahon has had his life transformed by the arrival of a canine companion. The 11-year-old from Laois had difficulty making friends and fitting in at school, and was often lonely and frustrated with life. But at the beginning of the year, he became the proud owner of a pug called Coco and found a new best friend.

Jamie has autism and ADHD, and has spent a lot of time on his own. One of his favourite pastimes was playing the computer game Minecraft. Through this game, in which you can choose a range of people and creatures as your avatar, he developed a love of pugs and pleaded with his parents to get him one of his own.

Already keen dog lovers, mum Ciara and dad Mark (pictured with Jamie) - who are also parents to 12-year-old Claire, seven-year-old twins Chloe and Rachel, and five-year-old Ross - didn't need much persuading.

"Jamie has no friends in school, as the other children don't know how to take him, so he always spent lots of time on his own," says Ciara. "He always liked playing Minecraft and became obsessed with pugs, saying he wanted to get a black one for himself. We have loads of dogs at home anyway but Jamie wanted his own pet, so we did some research and found a lady in Clare who said she had just the puppy we were looking for, so we went down to meet her.

"As soon as Jamie and Coco laid eyes on each other, they clicked immediately. It was so lovely to see and, from the first moment they met, Coco follows Jamie everywhere - he has a very loyal best friend."

Not only has Coco offered Jamie the friendship he needed, but she has also helped him to come out of himself more. "Since Coco arrived in our house, she has transformed Jamie's life - she has inspired so much self-confidence in him and also helps him to feel calm," says Ciara. "She seems to know when he is frustrated or agitated, and just goes and sits beside him so he can stroke her. This has an amazing calming effect on him. He has learned empathy, as he sees how she responds to kindness, so he is always doing his best to be gentle.

"She has also taught him social skills, as he now talks to people about her. Mark taught Jamie how to train Coco, so he has spent hours teaching her how to sit and stay and give the paw. Now, when Jamie meets anyone, he is thrilled to be able to show them the tricks she can do.

"Last year, he entered her into the Petmania Puppy of the Year competition, and the whole community got behind him to support him. Coming second in the national finals of the competition was a really huge thing - it has done no end of good for his confidence.

"I can't say enough about how this little dog has improved my son's life for the better - she's been wonderful."

Bekki & Mia

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Bekki Millar wit Mia and Honey - she credits Mia with saving her life. ©Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Bekki Millar from Lisburn, Co Down, credits her Staffordshire terrier, Mia, with saving her life after a surge in her blood sugar levels left her on the verge of a diabetic coma that could have proved fatal.

"I was diagnosed with Type One diabetes when I was nine years old and things became very unstable about 10 years ago," says Bekki (31). "Then one day about three years ago, my blood sugars went dangerously high. I took a lot of insulin in an attempt to bring them down. I couldn't stomach oral fluids - I felt incredibly sick and was roasting hot. Knowing that rest helps insulin get into the body a little quicker, I went to get into bed. Unusally, Miss Mia was already there - despite the fact that she and Honey (a rescued Jack Russell) have a fabulous bed of their own.

"I struggled massively to get to sleep and was dreadfully restless. My blood sugars kept rising, which indicated that my body had shut down and was resisting the insulin. Mia started to kick me. She obviously smelt my breath - when blood sugar levels rise, there is an acidic smell to your breath."

Despite the charity worker feeling too weak to move, her little dog was persistent and put all four paws into Bekki's back and kept pushing her over. She had to sit up in order to get the dog off her, and this alerted her to the danger.

"When I sat up, I almost collapsed onto the floor," says Bekki. "And when I checked my blood sugars again, they had gone so high, the machine wasn't reading them. I called my mum, who had to rush me to A&E, where I was admitted straight away. The staff couldn't understand how I was still conscious. I was kept for three days before being discharged.

"There is absolutely no doubt that had Mia not pushed me the way she did, the outcome would have been very different. Both my 'girls' are my world - I have a really strong bond with them that would be impossible to break. But I've always got that extra sensitivity around Mia because when I'm not feeling well, she picks it up quicker."

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