On March 19th I was invited to Champneys Springs Health Farm at Measham near the M42, not at all put off by the Gallows Lane address. Sadly I was not there for a day of spa treatments and pampering, but at least it was the next best thing: a demonstration by the charity Canine Partners, and a presentation on their major new project, a new dog training centre at Fields Farm, Osgathorpe near Ashby-de-la-Zouche in Leicestershire.
Of course we’re all familiar with Guide Dogs for the Blind (one of the UK’s richest charities), and increasingly with hearing dogs for the deaf. But the concept of assistance dogs is much more comprehensive. For people with serious disabilities and especially the wheel-chair-bound, assistance dogs can perform a remarkable range of tasks.
They can open doors and call lifts. They can take products from supermarket shelves and put them in a basket. They can lift the basket and put it on the check-out counter. They can retrieve dropped objects. They can open washing machines — and even load and unload them. They can remove people’s gloves, T-shirts and hoodies — and I actually had assistance-dog Doyle demonstrate by taking a glove from my own hand. They can remove bedclothes — or pull a blanket over their owner.
Perhaps most remarkable was the story of Kate, who has a severe bone disorder and is mostly in a wheelchair. She gave us a talk and a demonstration. Because of her condition she sometimes falls, and has difficulty getting up. Her dog Byron is trained to respond first by alerting anyone nearby. If there is no one there, Byron gets a mobile phone from its pocket on the wheelchair. Then he will get a blanket and put it over Kate, and stay beside her until help arrives.
These dogs have transformed the lives of a couple of hundred disabled people, allowing them a greatly increased measure of independence. Canine Partners works with Help for Heroes, and some of the disabled people benefitting from the programme are soldiers who have lost limbs in Afghanistan.
The limiting factor on this activity is the dogs’ training, which is of course very time-consuming. Canine Partners can currently train only around fifty dogs a year. Wit their new facility at Osgathorpe, they hope to double that, and could then help a hundred more disabled people every year. The new project is expected to cost around £3 million, so contributions will be welcome at www.caninepartners.org.uk.