Issue 101

Assistance Dog Owner Says, 'My Dog Is More Than Just a Dog'

Every dog owner will say his or her dog is the best dog in the world. We all love our dogs for what they give to us: undying love, companionship, devotion, laughter. They get us out and about and they make our lives whole. However, my dog Molly goes above and beyond. She is more than 'just a dog' writes Lucy Watts.

Here's their story.

I'm Lucy Watts MBE and I am 23 years old. I have a rare genetic muscle-wasting disorder along with a complex form of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. These conditions have caused complications, which are both life shortening and life threatening. I have multi-organ failure, including type 3 irreversible Intestinal Failure and Neurogenic Bladder Failure. I also have other complications including Autonomic Neuropathy, Restrictive Lung Disease, as well as bone, spine, immune, metabolic and renal problems. The failure of my intestinal tract means I am fed via a line directly into my heart; I am hooked up to intravenous drips at least 21 hours every day.

I also have other tubes and bags that are essential to my survival. I'm completely wheelchair dependent, I cannot stand or walk at all, and I am forced to spend a lot of time in bed. I'm cared for round the clock by intensive care nurses and carers, I spend a lot of time in hospital, I'm in constant pain, I am riddled with infections and my condition is progressive so I am continually losing abilities, getting weaker and my conditions become more complex and harder to manage. My conditions will shorten my life, likely quite considerably; but I am determined to make the most of every day I have.

I finally became disabled aged 14 after struggling with problems from birth. My whole life ground to a halt.

I lost my whole life as I knew it. I continued my schooling at home in bed, getting great GCSE results, and continued with education until I became too poorly, but I longed for a life outside my bedroom. The only focus I had was my rescue dog Ben, a Lurcher. I longed for the days I could walk him again.

When he died of old age, the one focus I had keeping me going was gone. What did I have to look forward to? What was the point? I'd lost everything.

Mum had said no more dogs, but seeing me sink so low, and with me begging for another dog, we agreed we would not only get a dog: but a puppy. We found a litter of working Cocker Spaniels - my choice of dog breed - and we went to visit them. They placed six of the seven puppies on my lap one at a time and they were gorgeous but none of them stood out until the final puppy was placed on my lap.

She looked up at me and then confidently marched up my chest, licked my face and then stole my neck pillow - despite the fact it was bigger than she was. I knew then she was my puppy. The only name that suited her was Molly; she would become my Molly Mischief.

I like to think that Molly chose me. It was like she knew I was her person and so did what she could to stand out. Whatever you believe, Molly was put on this planet to become someone's best friend and fate brought us together. She was born to change my life.

We brought Molly home just a week later. I was bed bound due to my body not tolerating being upright in my wheelchair. I could collapse from sitting up. However, there was no way I was going to miss out on Molly and on her puppy-hood.

So I pushed myself. I pushed my body beyond its capabilities, forcing it to get used to being upright. It was awful, but no way was I going to miss out on Molly. I persevered and in a short space of time, I went from being completely bed bound to getting up into my wheelchair every day to walk her, to train her and to go to weekly obedience classes.

I went from being invisible and ignored with people being too scared to talk to me, to being stopped all the time to talk about my beautiful dog. People were striking up conversations with me. I felt included, valued, like I was a part of society again. Molly did that. It's amazing what a difference a dog makes.

I grew in confidence. The painfully shy girl I was blossoming into a young lady who would talk to people, I'd tell them about my dog, I'd engage in the world, I would even initiate conversations with others I encountered.

'My dog gave me purpose'

Molly completely transformed my life. Not only was I a part of society again, I was getting the social interaction that had been absent from my life for five years. I was getting out and about. For the first time in years, I had a life. I had a purpose. I had dreams and goals, things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go. I was finally living again, rather than existing. The four walls of my bedroom had become my prison - but Molly had set me free.

I was having the time of my life. Enjoying nice walks in the summer sun, spending quality time with my mum and Molly. I got back into my hobby of photography, I was teaching Molly tricks and I was having fun. I had reclaimed my smile. I was living life to the full.

As well as our weekly training classes I was teaching Molly tricks. However, I had taught her a few useful tricks. Molly would pick up things I had dropped, she would pass me things if I pointed at them, she would fetch the post, and she even taught herself a crucial task.

My mum would go out and do the gardening, promising to be 20 minutes and going out, losing track of the time and invariably forgetting to take either her mobile or the house phone with her.

One day when this happened, Molly began acting strangely. Mum watched Molly darting into the house and then come running back out to her and barking at her. Mum took no notice. However, Molly persisted. She'd run into the house, run back out to mum and bark, and repeat this process again and again.

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Eventually Molly grabbed hold of the bottom of mum's trouser leg and pulled it, before charging back into the house barking. Mum thought she ought to see what Molly was doing so she came indoors and was horrified when she heard me calling. I had been calling for over half an hour, terrified something had happened to her, but not knowing what to do. We realised then that Molly had been trying to tell mum that I needed her. She had taught herself how to fetch help.

Channelling Molly's natural ability to learn

At this point, Molly's skill at teaching herself how to do things, like fetch help, was no more than a helpful trick in my mind. Then one day our neighbours gave us a cutting from a magazine. It was about a charity called Dog Assistance in Disability, or Dog A.I.D. who help disabled people train their pet dog to become their Assistance Dog.

They pair the owner and dog with a volunteer trainer who helps them teach their dog how to help them and how to behave in public, working through three levels of training. We applied, Molly was assessed and we were accepted into the scheme when Molly was 10 months old. Training started in earnest. Molly and I were thriving on the training, supported by our wonderful trainer, Midge. We were having a great time and progressing rapidly.

Life-changing events

Through the confidence that I had gained from Molly, my life would be taken in a completely different direction. I was offered the opportunity to give a speech at a reception in Parliament in November 2013. Despite mum's reservations and the fact I had never spoken publicly before, I accepted the role.

It truly changed my life and it was all down to Molly. I began working with charities, writing blogs, articles and forewords, giving speeches and appearing in videos. I had another purpose in life now. I was achieving a goal of mine; I wanted to make a difference. Molly gave me the confidence to accept the speech in Parliament and I have not looked back since.

In March 2014, Molly and I won the Friends for Life competition at Crufts, being voted winners by the British public, recognising how Molly had transformed my life. Molly was also awarded the Dogs Today Medal soon after. Sadly, not long after Crufts, I became poorly. I was in and out of hospital with surgeries, complications and infections. I was unable to do anything between May 2014 and May 2015.

Disaster would strike again. In April 2015, my mum, who was my sole carer, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She needed urgent surgery, and unfortunately, my mum would suffer a bleed on the brain and a catastrophic stroke following the operation. They didn't know if she would survive the night, and when she did, how disabled she would be. She had to learn everything again from scratch: moving, talking, walking and how to do everything such as caring for herself.

She was in hospital for six weeks and has made a remarkable and amazing recovery, but she will never be the same person or function at the same level as before. She struggles with memory and processing information. She also suffers from epilepsy as a result. Seeing my mum in that hospital bed, almost completely paralysed and not even knowing who I was, or that anyone was actually there, was one of the most awful things I have ever experienced, a close second to watching my mum have a 15-minute seizure and stop breathing a year after her surgery.

'My dog kept me going'

My whole world had caved in. I didn't want to live without the mum I knew and loved. I didn't want to live full stop. Everything mum had done for me, I now had to do for myself. I had strangers looking after me. The one thing that kept me going was Molly. She needed me. She couldn't understand what was happening, she was struggling and confused; I couldn't let her down, so I kept going.

Visiting mum at the hospital every day had forced my body to accept being upright. So I'd come home from the hospital and walk and train Molly. We resumed our Dog A.I.D. training and soon passed our Level One. Molly and her training kept me focused, kept be positive and kept me looking to the future. It was the only string I had to clutch to. Molly got me through, the only thing that kept me going.

To finish off that dreadful year in 2015, I found out I was receiving an MBE in the 2016 New Years Honours, at the age of 22, for services to young people with disabilities. It was a massive high, but tinged with sadness at the same time.

With our Dog A.I.D. training, Molly was doing really well, but I would become poorly again. Between February and May 2016, I could do anything at all, not even read my texts. However, I picked up in May and recovered just in time to attend my investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive my MBE, which was presented to me by The Prince of Wales.

It was a magical day, one I will never forget; I only wish Molly could've been there. We got back to her training and were over the moon when Molly passed her Level Two in August, and then passed her Level Three assessment, gaining full Assistance Dog status, a month later.

It meant Molly was now a fully qualified Assistance Dog with access rights to come everywhere with me. We gained our yellow ID book and Molly received her posh working jacket. It was a magical moment when I found out she had passed. My life was going to change, even more than it had already.

Molly and I are enjoying the world together, side by side. She makes me that little bit more independent. If I drop something, as I do often, I am not constantly apologising to people for dropping it. Instead, it's a hugely fun game and if anything, the more times I drop things the better!

'Molly makes a positive out of my disability'

Helping me can be a burden in people’s eyes, even if they don't mean it. To Molly, helping me is a fun game. She does it with a smile on her face and her tail wagging furiously.

Molly loves to help, the more help I need, the better the game is. Not only that, she loves to please. It doesn't matter what it is, or how much I ask of her, she's just as excited, if not more than the first time I ask. She is always there. Molly is not working 24/7, she gets lots of 'dog' time, she gets an hour off lead run a day, but she never truly switches off and is always there when I need her. For example, if I drop something, even if she is heavily asleep, she's straight there giving it back to me.

Molly's tasks include picking up dropped items, undressing me (fully), fetching the post, loading and unloading the washing machine, fetching help, passing or fetching me named items, closing doors, pushing door opening and lift buttons, passing notes between me and others, carrying items for me and pulling blankets off my lap.

She also (and she does this naturally) will alert me 3-4 hours before my temperature spikes, giving me vital warning that I am going to become poorly. I don't get early warning signs of an infection, so by the time my temperature gets above 38˚, I am usually on the verge of septicemia, which could make me critically ill in a very short space of time and is life-threatening.

Molly gives me that early warning so I know to prepare, to get intravenous antibiotics prescribed or to, at the very least, monitor my temperature. She alerts me by licking my hands and arms obsessively, she will not stop and she will not let me take my hand away. She also knows when my blood pressure is dropping and will either sit or stand in front of me and stare at me, or she will put her paws up on the armrest of my chair and stare at me. She does this all through scent I give off. She is just amazing.

Pride at winning an 'animal OBE'

Molly has truly transformed my life.

She's given me my life back. Molly is my whole life and she makes my life whole. It is down to her that I am still here today and that I have a busy life with my charity work. I never would have got into the charity work that I have, and now be working with seven charities and taking on many other one-off projects, if it weren't for Molly - I certainly wouldn't have an MBE.

So you can imagine my pride when Molly became only the fourth dog and the fourteenth animal to ever receive the PDSA Order of Merit. It is known as the 'Animal OBE'. I am so proud not only of Molly for all she has done but proud that others can recognise how amazing she is too.

She was awarded the Order of Merit for outstanding devotion to me, in her role as my Assistance Dog as well as my companion.

Molly is now four years old and we are only just starting out on our Assistance Dog journey, but already she is a star guest at events and meetings, everyone loves having her there, and she even received her own personal invite to the Houses of Parliament to attend a similar event to the one that started all my charity work off. It's my third time at Parliament, but Molly's first. I'm sure she will help get the message of the event across to the MPs.

Molly is everything to me. She isn't just a dog - she is my world, my companion, my best friend, my confidante, the light of my life and on top of all of that, my accredited Assistance Dog.

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