Support dogs are life-changing for disabled people lucky enough to have one – not just in the way most people think.
Every year, for the last five years, I have led ‘All About Ataxia’ workshop for newly diagnosed people at Ataxia UK’s National Conference. Amongst other things, we talk about support networks, who is, or should be in ours. We discuss the importance of knowledgeable and supportive families, friends and medical professionals. Then I always ask who has a pet. I delight in how the room lights up as people talk about their beloved pets, and then get choked up as I explain how Tara, my support dog, saved mine and my family’s lives.
In 2006, my Wife was going through a tough time and had to take a break from working. I’ve always loved dogs – I remember how much our family pet, Dusty, meant to me when I was at home alone all day when I was in my late teens. We talked about getting a puppy instead of Helen taking the frightening number of anti-depressants she had been prescribed. I hoped that having a pet would be therapeutic for her, get her out of the house and into the fresh air and that they could build a routine together. Bravely, Helen agreed to try, and it worked! They went to Good Citizen Training, and out for walks together, making friends with other dogs and their owners. There was always a warm welcome for me when I came home from work. We had our daughter in 2009, I thank Tara for helping my wife decide that she felt ready.
When I retired from quite a responsible role in 2012, I found that everyone else in the family routine I was trying to settle into, even the dog, was much more important than me! We noticed that Tara responded quite strongly when anyone was in distress. As a wheelchair user, this was usually me. Sure, she would helpfully bring a shoe and lick my face if I had fallen out of my wheelchair – probably not what you really want, but she would also bark and raise the alarm! Could we train her to develop this reaction? We had thought about this before but were against sending our beloved pet away to be trained. We were so excited when we learned that DOG AID, a local charity, works with you to train your own pet in your own home. Even though the Charity don’t usually work with adult dogs, the fact that Helen had already trained Tara to a very high standard tipped the balance for us. As I had so much time to fill, I was to take responsibility for her training. Being a terrier, food was everything to Tara, and I spent the next year adjusting to life at home with a bag full of chopped cheese on me at all times!
After a year of intense training, Tara could retrieve dropped (non-edible!) items for me, jump up to switch light switches on and bark fiercely at the doorbell (or me!) if I was in distress. I couldn’t trust her to retrieve things from the fridge! Expectantly, people would ask me what she could do for me, I would reply, “We trained her to answer the phone, but nobody could understand her!” Often people didn’t find that funny. Perhaps they weren’t expecting a silly answer to a serious question or were disappointed that Tara didn’t help me get dressed or balance the household finances. I was trying to show that they were missing the point. I go on to explain that beyond the ‘tricks’, what Tara really does for me is quite unexpected. She restores my link with humanity. If I am out and about my wheelchair, people look straight through me. When I am with Tara, it’s like being out with a film star. Suddenly, we are inundated with people asking about her. We have even had traffic stop on a busy road so the driver could come and say hello to us! I never realised this was something a support dog could do. How important is it for anyone who finds themselves at the edge of society to continue to interact with others?
As a Governor in my local Primary School, I would spend one afternoon a week reading with the pupils. This was the most rewarding aspects of the role and something I have developed a passion for. Knowing how well people react to Tara and as she was insured and trained as a support dog, Mrs Smith, the SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) and I agreed to begin using Tara as a reading dog. Helen designed a logo and I had a stamp made so I could stamp the pupils’ reading diaries, and Helen drew the logo on a hi-vis dog-jacket. Tara always knew that when she was wearing that jacket, she was working. I would tell the kids: “You’re reading to Tara, not me. She won’t hurry, correct or judge you.” The trick was to give each child a dog treat, which when Tara’s scented, she would sit and wait patiently. It made a lovely picture, it looked as if Tara was intelligently listening, when in reality she was focused solely on the treat! Soon, I could see the children start to relax and really enjoy reading stories they had brought from home that they thought Tara would like (anything with picnics or cats in!) The positive impact of the School’s Reading Dog was proudly mentioned in the School’s OFSTED Inspection in 2017. We kept this up for two years, until Tara retired.
Tara passed away at our home in December 2018, after a year of battling cancer. Saying goodbye was so very hard, at the end we did the best thing for her, not us. We buried her in our back garden with all the love she deserved. From helping Helen face her depression and preparing to be a Mum, to helping me adjust to retirement, making me feel a part of the world around us again, guarding my family like royalty and giving us her companionship and unconditional love, Tara made us better people and saved us all. We found her absence to be so painful, the hurt did not lessen as time went on. As Christmas came with its messages of renewal and hope, we realised we didn’t have to replace Tara to move on.
We welcomed Treacle, our new puppy, month later. She is an ‘Airedoodle’ and still growing up, but we have big plans for her. ARCh Oxfordshire, the reading charity I’ve just started working with, have said they would love her to be their first reading dog! I think Tara would be very proud of the positive influence she has had on us all.