One good thing to come out of having MS was that I was able to get a dog. I had previously been so busy working that it was out of the question, so when my illness made it impossible to work there was at least a positive.
I’ve had Bonnie, a little Cavachon, from an 8 week old puppy, and she immediately made me feel happy. She instinctively seemed to know how I was feeling and on rough days would lie next to me and not leave my side.
I remember watching a TV programme about training dogs in rescue shelters to assist people with disabilities and this got me thinking. How wonderful it would be if I could get Bonnie to help me by picking up something I dropped? I went online to find more information and what I discovered blew my mind. I found that there are disability Assistance Dogs who help their owners and become constant companions. I knew about guide dogs, but I didn’t realise there were official disability Assistance Dogs. I watched in awe at video after video showing dogs carrying out tasks to help their owners.
This seemed like a dream, but then I had a reality check as I realised that most disability assistance dogs are trained as puppies. I didn’t want another dog, I had Bonnie and even though she was small I was sure she could do it.
This is when I discovered a charity called Dog A.I.D. (Assistance in Disability). I was so excited, it seemed too good to be true. They help owners to train their pet dogs to become fully qualified Assistance Dogs, building on the existing bond between them. They are the only UK charity that doesn’t remove the dog from their owner for periods of training which was important to me.
I was desperate to apply but their services are so in demand that there were never any vacancies in my area. The charity only accept dogs up to their fifth birthday and as Bonnie was already four I thought I was going to miss out. Luckily, the wonderful trainer who had ran Bonnie’s puppy class kindly agreed to help and went through the charities induction process and was approved.
Now it was our turn, we had to be assessed to ensure that Bonnie had the right temperament and aptitude and I needed to prove that I met the criteria for needing an Assistance Dog. My MS nurse, Nikki Embrey, was amazing, helping me fill the form in and providing encouragement. To be eligible you don’t have to be wheelchair dependent but you do have to have a disability that impacts on your mobility and ability to perform daily tasks. Finally, Bonnie had a full medical and then we were approved and allowed to start our journey.
"My MS nurse, Nikki Embrey, was amazing, helping me fill the form in and providing encouragement"
There are three levels of training to get through on the route to final qualification and it all seemed a little daunting at first. Your trainer spends time with you giving you the knowledge and skills for the task and then you are left to practise until the next session. All the training is done using kind reward-based methods and Bonnie really enjoyed herself. We got through level one quite quickly as it is basic socialisation and obedience and then when the criteria for level 2 arrived I really started to panic. It all seemed so hard and I couldn’t imagine being able to do everything. Maurice Millington my trainer and his wife Carole kept encouraging us and helping us practice. We approached every day with the same commitment and slowly we got there, we were becoming a real team.
Level three was using all the skills that we had learnt, tested in an unfamiliar environment. On the day of our assessment I was so nervous, but somehow we made it and the sense of relief when we were told that we had passed was immeasurable.
I couldn’t have been more proud of Bonnie, she picked up her training so quickly and the training has just strengthened our bond. I also felt a great sense of achievement, something which had been sadly lacking since I had left work.
Bonnie now can come everywhere with me, which is a real confidence boost. She even comes with me when I have my Tysabri infusion each month and lays quietly on my lap; a benefit of having a smaller assistance dog! She cheers everyone up at the hospital including the nurses who are always pleased to see her.
When I was first having to use my wheelchair I felt really vulnerable and lonely. Having her at my side is like having my best friend with me. I don’t need to panic when I drop my keys or payment card because she just picks them straight up for me. All eyes are on her now when we are out, not me and I get lots of people being friendly asking about her or just quietly smiling at us.
At home she helps by opening doors, fetching things for me and even helps with the laundry. I can really say that she has changed my life and I hope that reading my story will encourage more people with MS to enquire about Assistance Dogs.