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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dogs for the Disabled

Dogs for the Disabled

'Things were rubbish until Josie came to love me’.

Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal: Dogs for the Disabled

3:50PM GMT 18 Nov 2010

A dog can be a source of help, as well as comfort, to someone who is disabled. Properly trained, a dog will pick up dropped items, help with dressing, turn on lights, activate an alarm and perform other tasks that allow disabled people to be independent. With a dog as a companion – and in need of a walk – a person who might otherwise be isolated and home-bound can gain the confidence to go out and socialise.

Founded 22 years ago by Frances Hay, who had lost a leg to bone cancer, Dogs for the Disabled has redrawn the boundaries of who can be helped by dogs, and how. Other charities that train dogs focus on adult partnerships but, since 2004, Dogs for the Disabled has been helping under-18s. Starting with physically disabled children, dogs trained by the charity have given young people so much practical support that some are attending college.

Sam, a nine year-old with muscular dystrophy, used to long for a friend who would never leave him or tell him he couldn't play. "Sam's frustration boiled over into every part of his life," his mother, Sara, remembers. "He stopped going out – even into the garden." In May 2009, Sam was partnered with a two-year-old Labrador, Josie, who helps him with everything from tidying his room to putting on splints. At night, she sleeps next to him and warns his parents if he is sick. "Things were rubbish until she came to love me," says Sam.

Two years ago, the charity extended its work to include children as young as three with autism. "Many seem to respond positively to dogs in a way that they don't to people," says chief executive Peter Gorbing. Children with autism don't always need a fully trained assistance dog so last year the charity started a programme called PAWS to teach families how their pet dogs will help socialise a child.

Both the assistance dogs and PAWS have proved so successful that the charity cannot keep pace with demand. Operating from a converted kennels near Banbury, a maximum of 30 dogs are trained at any one time, at a cost of £11,000 each; 90 volunteers work as puppy socialisers before training begins. To date, the charity has created 450 dog/human partnerships of which 240 are currently active.

A dog can never take the place of a human carer but a canine assistant provides low-tech, low-cost practical help. The calm created by a dog can reduce the need for drugs, and its presence brings joy not just to an individual but to an entire family.

Recently Dolly, one of the older assistance dogs, saved the life of Pat, with whom she lives. When Pat fell in the shower Dolly first barked for assistance, then fetched Pat's dressing gown off the hook, and finally lay close to Pat to keep her warm. When, eventually, a neighbour knocked, Dolly made it clear that something was wrong.

With the help of Telegraph readers, Dogs for the Disabled hopes to enlarge the kennels so more dogs can be trained, develop a breeding centre and run more PAWS workshops.

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