DOGS FOR THE DISABLED
by Ann Evans
For many thousands of people with physical disabilities, an assistance dog has literally changed their lives. Not only have they helped adults and children with disabilities in practical day to day living, coping with things able bodied people take for granted; such as picking up dropped items, helping them get dressed and undressed, fetching the post, opening and closing doors and many other practical tasks, they have given them confidence, security, relieved worries and stress and increased the person’s self esteem. For many people, with an assistance dog by their side, they are living the lives they want to live.
The charity Dogs for the Disabled began in 1988, it was started by Warwickshire woman Frances Hay with her dog Kim. Frances was a vibrant lively teenager who was struck down by bone cancer and tragically had her leg amputated when she was 16. She loved travelling and horse riding and her top priority was to regain her mobility and continue enjoying her life.
She trained her own dogs to help her around the house. One particular dog, Kim, a big Belgian Shepherd connected with Frances in a very special way and he would respond to Frances’ needs. He was never far from her side and would steady her as she rose from the chair, and provide stability when she came downstairs. It was this rapport that made Frances realise that a dog could help disabled people in many ways, and so she founded Dogs for the Disabled.
Over the years the charity has gone from strength to strength through the support of volunteers, supporters, puppy socialisers, fundraisers, and the amazing staff who do such great work in finding suitable dogs, matching them with a recipient, and training them to assist that person with their everyday lives.
In 1997/8 the charity received a Lottery grant enabling them to buy land on which to build the Frances Hay Centre, and in 2000 they moved into this new centre in Banbury. In 2004 came the introduction of Assistance Dogs for physically disabled children.
The charity has trained well over 700 Assistance Dogs and currently has more than 300 working with adults and children with disabilities in England and Wales. It was also the first charity to train an Autism Assistance Dog and there are currently 60 working with families with a child with autism.
One recipient of an Assistance Dog is Ann Hanson and 7 year old Dazzle. It was only when Ann was in rehabilitation after a brain haemorrage that she heard about Dogs for the Disabled, and decided to apply. “As soon as I saw her I thought she was so beautiful,” said Ann. “When you’re training with the dog at the Centre, you have a room and a bed so you can have a rest. On that first day I got on the bed and Dazzle did too and she’s been beside me ever since.”
“You can be invisible when you’re in a wheelchair, and sometimes you don’t want to go out because you feel isolated. But having Dazzle opens doors – literally and metaphorically! Suddenly everyone wants to stop and speak to me.”
I talked to Peter Gorbing, Chief Executive for Dogs for the Disabled who said, “The things the dogs are trained to do aren’t life saving, but life changing. Small things that add up giving that person their independence. Not only does the dog assist that person on a practical basis, it also has psychological benefits. It gives them confidence, companionship and independence.
“We have clients who did not go out and had no social life, but having a dog motivates them to go out and they meet and talk to people. Having a dog breaks down barriers. You cannot underestimate the psychological difference these dogs make to people.”
“For a child with autism, a dog can have an incredible calming influence,” said Peter who went on to talk about the three-year study that was undertaken in conjunction with the University of Lincoln and the National Autistic Society regarding the potential benefits a pet dog can bring to families with a child with autism.
Additionally, Dogs for the Disabled’s PAWS service is now in its fourth year. Through a series of workshops and on-going support, families are encouraged to explore and develop the potential of their own dog being of assistance to their child. So far 600 families have benefited from this revolutionary service.
“PAWS has shown fantastic results,” added Peter. “The future is very exciting, we are leading the field on this in the UK. In ten years time the charity will be working with a lot more people, training and recognising and delivering a range of services to them.”
One family who are grateful for the PAWS service are Sarah and Jason Evans and their son Christian. It wasn’t until Christian was eleven years old that The Evans family got a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Doctors also diagnosed Christian with OCD, further compounding the challenges that the family face as a result of his autism.
Mum Sarah said, “Prior to PAWS we knew that pets can be therapeutic and that they may be able to help children with autism, however we weren’t aware of how a trained pet dog can make such a huge difference. The PAWS workshops were fantastic. It was good to meet other parents in the same situation, and really refreshing to learn about how a pet dog can help children with autism.”
Following the workshops, Sarah and Jason set about implementing the techniques demonstrated with their very loveable Jack Russell, Obi. Sarah says PAWS has made a huge difference to Christian and her family’s life: “Christian has made huge progress. He is much more sociable and willing to go out. His sleeping routine has improved and he now shows more affection towards me, his dad and others.
“I strongly urge anyone that has a child with autism to consider PAWS as an avenue of managing the challenges they face as a result of their child’s spectrum condition.”
The work of Dogs for the Disabled continues to expand and develop which includes exploring how dogs can bring benefits to children in schools and to people with dementia and adults with autism.
Sadly, Frances Hay did not live to see the incredible successes her charity has achieved as she died in 1990 aged just 40. Today, her charity continues to grow and develop. The aim remains the same as when Frances first set out: that one day, every disabled person that could benefit from an assistance dog should be able to have one.
Dogs for the Disabled annual Fun Day is free and open to all. It takes place at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire on Saturday 25th July 2015 from 11am-3pm. This is a chance to experience the charity’s tremendous work, meet their puppies, volunteers, staff and assistance dogs. There will be demonstrations, a fun dog show, West Midlands Police Dog Demonstration Team, wheelwork to music, jugglers and circus skills, static falconry display, great food, a beer tent, a craft fair and lots more. Contact the charity if you would like to have a craft stall on the day.
YOU CAN HELP
Dogs for the Disabled relies on the support and generosity of the general public to continue its amazing work. There are many ways you can help. Such as:
- Sign up to one of Dogs for the Disabled events or organise your own.
- Choose to support Dogs for the Disabled as an individual, with friends, or through your work.
- Run, walk, jump out of a plane, or undertake the challenge of a lifetime in the Himalayas!
Just get in touch and Dogs for the Disabled will send you all the support materials that you need.
- Maybe you could be a puppy socialiser who provides a home for a puppy for the first year of its life, giving it all the experiences so it can start off on the road to becoming a life-changing dog for a disabled person.
- Perhaps you could help by being a temporary boarder – someone who could offer a temporary place in their home for a dog in training.
- Make a donation.
To find out more of what this amazing charity does, please visit: www.dogsforthedisabled.org
Photos courtesy of Rob Tysall and Dogs for the Disabled.