“Ula and I have a symbiotic relationship – we’re an equal partnership. She’s my best friend, my confidant and while we’ve only been together for a short while, it feels like much longer.”
This is the inspiring, uplifting story of Owen Picker and Ula.
Owen, 21, lives in Lincoln and has Cerebral Palsy quadriplegia which means he has difficulty controlling movement in his arms and legs and has been a full-time wheelchair user since the age of 14.
But none of this stops him from being a force to be reckoned with and after completing his A-levels, Owen went on to University to do a degree in Special Education Needs, Disability and Inclusion and is now doing a Masters in the same subject.
When he was about 17, Owen and his mum watched a TV programme about assistance dogs. Owen says: “Mum and I decided we’d do some more research and as a result of that, we found out about Dogs for Good. While we knew that it was likely to be a long wait, we filled in an application form and after a while, were invited along to an Information Day at the charity’s northern office, just outside Manchester.”
Owen learned a lot from that day. “The Information Day set out quite clearly that having an assistance dog is a big responsibility and while they can help you with many practical tasks and will absolutely enrich your life in their lovely four-legged way, they need you to love them, care for them, walk them, feed them and take responsibility for their wellbeing and welfare.”
Owen’s application was successful and he was placed on Dogs for Good’s waiting list. “I knew I just had to get on with my life and hope that one day, I got a call to say that they’d got a dog that matched me perfectly."
So, Owen got on with his A-levels and then went to live in halls at University. “Being at University was a big transitional change and I did struggle with loneliness and anxiety in the first year,” he admits.
Things started to get better for Owen in his second year in Uni with the help of an exceptional carer called Brendan.
He said: “I started to get a bit of my old determination back and took more of an interest in the life I could have at Uni,” he says. “I even ran for the Student Union President and am now a member of the senate representing post-graduate students”.
But even though his mental health was stronger, Owen wasn’t really looking after himself. “I was eating too many takeaways, I didn’t keep my living space clean and tidy and, while it’s difficult to admit, I definitely got into the mindset of ‘I don’t need to do this because my carers will do it’.
“I know it’s a cliché but I really didn’t have any sense of purpose or a reason to get up in the morning,” he explains.
But in early 2020, Owen got the call he’d been waiting for. “Dogs for Good phoned to say that they’d got a potential match for me. And that match was a beautiful Labrador x golden retriever called Ula. I remember thinking ‘the wait is finally over!’”
Dogs for Good brought Ula to meet Owen to see if she was comfortable being with him and Owen recalls that day well.
He explains: “We met in the Student Union café because it was quiet in there. Once she was let off her lead, she had a bit of a sniff around and then came to me and curled up under my wheelchair footplates. I remember thinking ‘this is the most placid, chilled out dog I’ve ever met'."
In the normal course of things, Owen and Ula would have been placed together as soon as possible after that visit, but sadly, Covid-19 meant that Owen’s wait continued for a few more months. “It was so frustrating but ultimately, I knew that we’d be together and I just had to be patient,” he says.
In September 2020, Ula and Owen were finally placed together and their bond developed quickly and naturally.
“Practically, she helps me with retrieving items I drop such as my phone, controllers and keys, as well as helping me off with my clothes, opening and closing doors etc.
She’s also helped me with my reason to get up in the morning – she needs her breakfast and she needs a walk! And she’s helped me find a sense of responsibility because I need to look after myself and keep my room tidy so that she can be comfortable and safe.”
In addition, Owen says that ensuring that Ula’s needs are met has helped him form the foundations for one day having a house of his own. “I need to make sure that she’s OK and by doing that, I also make sure that I’m OK. It’s a symbiotic relationship – we’re an equal partnership. She’s my best friend, my confident and while we’ve only been together for a short while, it feels like much longer.”
Owen is keen to point out that care teams need to be brought into the partnership and are happy to work with an assistance dog, too. “Obviously, Ula is my dog and my responsibility,” he says.
“But my carers share their work space with her so both human and dog needs to be comfortable and also, understands how an assistance dog works. For example, I have specific verbal cues that I give Ula so she understands what I’m asking of her so if my carer doesn’t use the same language, it creates confusion for Ula.”
Dogs for Good Instructor, Katie Anakin, works with Owen and Ula, helping Owen to continue refining the task work that Ula can carry out for him.
She says: “Ula and Own are completely smitten with each other! Owen adores Ula and they’re absolutely brilliant together. They bonded really quickly and they dote on each other – Ula almost mothers Owen! - and it’s really lovely watching their bond deepen and grow.”
Owen says that his best friend is getting married in 2023 and has asked him to be the ringbearer. “They were also after a flower girl so I said ‘well, Ula will be with me anyway so why don’t you ask her to do it?!’
Ula graciously agreed and she’ll carry the flowers in a little basket that she’ll hold in her mouth. I can’t wait to see that!”
Image credits: Dogs For Good