As Canine Partners celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is hard to believe the Charity started from the front room of its founders Anne Conway, Nicky Pendleton and Liz Ormerod. Beginning with just an idea - yet no money, no dogs, no staff and nowhere to train - Canine Partners has grown enormously and is now a nationally recognised charity training 50 dogs a year to change the lives of people with disabilities.
During this time, Canine Partners purchased an old polo stables in West Sussex with 22 acres of land, which later became the National Training Centre thanks to extensive fundraising and a Lottery grant. Terry Knott was appointed as the first CEO of the Charity and HRH The Duke of Gloucester became the Patron of Canine Partners.
The Current Vision
Canine Partners aims to train dogs to meet the needs of people with even the most complex disabilities including members of HM Armed Forces.
These life transforming dogs also provide practical, physiological, psychological and social benefits including increased independence and confidence as well as increased motivation and self-esteem. A canine partner also brings companionship, a sense of security and increases social interaction.
Director of Operations Andy Cook took over the role of CEO in 2009. His vision is for a day when all people with disabilities in the UK will know about assistance dogs and will have the opportunity to be provided with a canine partner from their nearest Training Centre.
There are currently 1.2 million people who use wheelchairs in the UK, and a significant number of those would benefit from a canine partner. In some recent research carried out by Canine Partners, it identified that over 90% of its applicants use wheelchairs, the majority are women, the average age is early 40’s and the condition encountered most frequently is multiple sclerosis followed by cerebral palsy, spinal injury, congenital skeletal conditions and neurological conditions.
Each dog trained by Canine Partners is tailor made to the individual with whom it gets partnered, which is why it takes 18 months and costs in excess of £10,000 to get to that point. However this figure is well and truly repaid by the work a canine partner does in its lifetime, as well as the fact that in many cases an assistance dog reduces the need for Care.
Puppy Selection And Socialising
Puppies are carefully selected using specially developed aptitude tests, which help to identify potential assistance dogs. Essential qualities include a gentle, co-operative nature, curiosity, a strong desire to be with people and a steady temperament. Most of the canine partner puppies are from the retriever-type breeds. Labradors, Golden Retriever, Flatcoat Retrievers or, in many cases, crosses between these breeds. However, it does select some crosses between Poodles and Labradors or Retrievers, in case a partner has allergies or uses respiratory equipment.
The Charity has also trained rescue puppies to become assistance dogs, such as canine partner Zack who works for David Filmer. The majority of puppies are bought by Canine Partners and a few are kindly donated, but there are plans to increase the training success rate and cut costs by breeding an increased number of in-house puppies.
The puppies are cared for by volunteer puppy parents from the age of eight weeks to about fourteen months. By attending weekly training classes at one of the nine puppy training satellites nationwide, puppy parents learn how to socialise puppies to every environment in which an assistance dog might work, such as busy streets, shops, hospitals, supermarkets and workplaces.
Puppies are taught how to problem solve, a quality crucial to successfully working as an assistance dog at an exceptionally high level.
After their puppy socialisation they move to the West Sussex Training Centre and the Canine Partners advanced trainers take over. The pups are aged around 14 months and will then receive tailor-made training, which takes from 4-6 months and tasks will include:
* Operating a pedestrian crossing or lift button
* Loading and unloading washing machines/tumble driers
* Retrieving a wide variety of items as required, for example keys, an inhaler, crutches or a phone
* Picking chosen items off supermarket shelves
* Handing over a purse and items at the checkout
* Assisting with dressing and undressing
* Carrying out a range of emergency response procedures
Once a dog has passed its advanced training, it will be matched to a person with disabilities who has successfully made it through the Canine Partners application process. Together they will attend a residential training course where the applicant will learn how to give the dog commands, the canine partner will receive additional training tailored to the needs of that person and together they will bond. If successful, the partnership can return home together and begin their journey, with the back up of after care support from Canine Partners.
The Well-being Of Our Dogs
Canine partners receive a huge amount of praise, love and affection throughout the training programme, and are trained using the most up-to-date positive motivational training methods. All the dogs have the opportunity to play, relax and "just be dogs" and they lead full and rewarding lives with their partners, who provide them with the best possible care. Canine Partners oversee the well-being of all its dogs throughout their entire working lives and ensure they enjoy a happy retirement, when that time comes.
Andy Cook CEO comments, “As a Charity that relies on funding via donations, gifts in wills and corporate partnerships, we are very dependent on our team of volunteers throughout the country. If you feel you can help Canine Partners in any way from offering a foster home to dogs, becoming a puppy parent, fundraising, volunteering your specific skills or Adopting a Puppy for £1 a week – please contact us.”
Lorna Marsh and Eli
Disability: Cerebral Palsy Quadraplegia
Lorna graduated with Canine Partner Eli in December 2008. This is her story:
My name is Lorna Marsh. I have had a Canine Partner since 30th December. His name is Eli. He is a cross between a Labrador and a Golden Retriever.
To give you a bit of my background – I work for a Qualifications Curriculum Authority and Surrey Independent Living Council. Also I am a teacher. I teach people with autism dance and drama. Eli is very much part of those classes and is quite a good dancer himself.
In just one year Eli can do so much, it’s difficult to believe unless you can see it for yourself. I knew that having a Canine Partner would help my independence but I truly didn’t realise quite how much. Every time Eli does something for me I feel like it’s me doing it for myself so I’m not so dependent on people anymore and that is just the best feeling.
To give you a true picture of everything he does I’ll go through my day.
In the morning he wakes up my PA and then goes to get his collar, has his breakfast, puts his own bowl in the sink, goes to get his coat, opens and closes the bin for me after breakfast, gets my mobile off the side unit and helps me put it on my lap. He also can open the drawers for me to get things out.
He gets the car keys, opens and closes the back door after going to the loo and helps me take my coat off when I get to work. At work he gives the post to a colleague of mine and opens the electric door. If I’m ever needing to knock on someone’s door and there is a step up to it – so not possible – he barks so everyone knows I’m there.
After work it’s playtime, where Eli also has several party tricks that he knows will make you laugh. It’s difficult to describe unless you can see it for yourself, but he bounces on command before I throw the tennis ball, then goes back and rolls over of his own accord. A bit like a dance routine – you can tell he is my dog.
When I’m throwing the ball for him, he puts it on my lap so I can get hold of it myself – which sometimes takes a while. He is the most patient dog I know.
I have Eli’s treats in a plastic bag that hangs on my chair. He gives it to me without taking any treats out, which he so easily could do, or without spilling any on the floor. And there is no hesitation that he would take any unless I give it to him.
In the evening I often have a couple of hours on my own while my PAs are on a break. This is when Eli truly comes into his own. He does not leave my side. The moment I drop anything he is right there. If the landline rings he gets it with no command, so if I don’t want to talk to anyone it’s tough – it can be a little bit awkward.
I like to sit watching TV with the armrest of my wheelchair up, which I could never do before because I had no way of getting them back down again. But now Eli can put the armrest down, I can truly relax. He passes me the TV remote and then takes my shoes and socks off – all I need him to do now is give me a massage and make me a cup of tea!
When it comes to bedtime he pulls the duvet over the top of me, gives me a hug and then goes to his own bed - I always look forward to the end of the day because of that! So as you can see with all this he does an awful lot for me and I haven’t included everything.
On top of this he has a fantastic personality and is the tidiest dog I have ever met. Not only does he pick up everything I drop, but also everything that’s just lying around if it’s not in the right place, particularly shoes. Just to give you a true picture of quite how tidy he is: one day a pencil was lying on the floor, Eli picked it up (unasked), put it next to the phone and straightened it up with his nose. My eyes couldn’t believe what they were watching.
He’s not always the good little boy I’m painting the picture of, because he is so intelligent he knows how to get away with murder! But this just makes me love him even more. I didn’t ask for a robot I asked for a canine partner and in my opinion I got the best one and the icing on the cake is that he’s a really good friend as well.
I look forward to the adventures of the next year to come – can’t even picture what he will be doing a few years from now. I have absolutely no regrets and would recommend it to anybody, even though the training was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically. The rewards are massive.
For further information please visit www.caninepartners.org.uk or call 08456 580480.
Registered Charity Number 803680 Registered In Scotland SCO39050