Clare Cannon approaches the checkout in a wheelchair and the problem becomes obvious.
There’s no way of reaching far enough to hand over her purse.
Then two paws land on the counter in front of the till and a friendly face appears with wallet in mouth.
Orla – a gorgeous retriever/Labrador cross with bright alert eyes and a face that says ‘I’m thrilled to help’ – has saved the day.
Clare doesn’t need the chair, but she’s sitting in it to help those who do. The 22-year-old is an advanced trainer at Canine Partners and she’s putting one of the charity’s workforce of clever dogs through her paces with an important shopping task.
The pair are at the West Sussex training centre of the organisation which supplies super-dogs to help people with a range of disabilities.
The training room is set out with all manner of props, including the cash register, a washing machine, telephone, doors and supermarket shelves with toy groceries.
It could be a children’s play area but for the fact that Clare is working her way around the fake facilities showing off Orla’s skills.
The dog brings her the telephone from a table and then opens a cupboard door to get a bowl out.
‘She’s done really well, although she’s quite excitable,’ says Clare. ‘But we need dogs with a lot of character and energy. They have to have that drive to work. There have been occasions, though, when they’ve jumped up on the counter with the cash register. They can be a bit too enthusiastic.’
There’s no such behaviour from Orla today. She is well-trained and ready to live with her human partner, a lady in an electric wheelchair. Dogs develop core skills, including removing clothes from the washing machine and handing wallets to cashiers, and then have further training to meet a person’s specific requirements.
The help and companionship can change people’s lives.
‘We see people grow in confidence,’ says Clare. ‘Quite often they haven’t wanted to go out and try new things. This really helps them do that.’
But before the dogs can be matched with an owner, they must go through a thorough training programme. They spend their early years with ‘puppy parents’ – volunteers dotted around the country – and go to the training centre between 14 and 18 months.
Currently there are 22 dogs housed at the HQ near Midhurst. It’s a kind of boarding school with trainers working with several dogs at a time and the canine pupils having weekend breaks with foster families.
Clare and her colleagues use clicker training. This involves pressing a clicking tool whenever the animal does something right and then giving them a treat. They soon learn to associate the noise with the food.
Progress is made by allowing the dogs to pick up skills in stages. So trainers will click when the dog shows interest in a washing machine and then wait until they go a few steps further and eventually open the door. All this takes places in short bursts over a couple of months.
‘We don’t sit there waiting for too long,’ explains Clare. ‘We don’t want them getting frustrated.’
Training also involves trips to supermarkets and parks.
‘It’s all very well working here where it’s nice and quiet, but we need to get them used to all the possible distractions outside.’
Eventually the clicker as an association is replaced by a cue – either a command or a visual instruction. And trainers and owners try to wean the dogs off treats, using praise as a reward instead. Diets are strictly regulated and the dogs receive plenty of exercise.
Dogs have been trained to a very high standard and some can understand commands like ‘phone, get’ or ‘bag, get’.
Training also continues in the canine partner’s new home. Dogs have been taught to put rubbish in bins and alert emergency services with a special panic button.
The animal’s welfare and happiness is always of the utmost importance. Owners and their families take responsibility, but they have plenty of support from the charity
‘The dogs absolutely love it. And if it really doesn’t suit an animal they come off the programme and end up as a family pet,’ says Clare.
Not surprisingly Clare, who has a degree in animal behaviour, loves her job and enjoys working with people as much as the dogs.
‘It’s very rewarding,’ she says. ‘Especially when you realise how much confidence it gives people. We’ve had partners saying that it stops them feeling invisible. When they have a dog people want to chat and that can be really important.’
Of course the canine workers love all the fuss and nobody forgets the fact that they are individuals.
Nowhere is that more apparent when it comes to the ultimate test – picking up food. ‘Some will eat it, others won’t,’ laughs Clare. ‘They’re all very different.’
It takes Ian Runnalls quite some time to do the shopping.
People are keen to talk to him after seeing his dog fetching goods from shelves and passing his wallet to the cashier.
Ian’s canine helper Kelsey will also open the washing machine before taking clothes out and closing the door, pick things up off the floor and fetch the post.
But he says her true value is in her mere presence.
Ian, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, explains: ‘People want to stop and talk when you have a dog. Sometimes it takes a while to do things but it really gives you confidence. You can feel quite vulnerable when you’re on your own.‘
Kelsey, a Labrador retriever cross, is 65-year-old Ian’s second helper and friend from charity Canine Partners.
The Gosport grandfather’s first dog Grayson changed his life. ‘I didn’t go out on my own. He gave me the confidence to do that and my wife the confidence to let me. I felt like I had my independence back.’
Grayson helped Ian out of many sticky situations, including a muddy ordeal. ‘I got stuck in some mud so I tied his rope toy to the chair and he pulled,’ he recalls.
Sadly, Grayson died a few years ago and Ian initially decided against another canine partner. ‘It’s really difficult, you form such a bond and I didn’t think I wanted to go through that again.’
But he soon found himself lost without a four-legged pal.
Now he’s enjoying life with Kelsey who accompanies him almost everywhere, including Fratton Park, ‘She likes that, she gets a treat when Pompey score. She hasn’t had many lately,’ jokes Ian.
As he speaks an adoring Kelsey approaches him with a slipper – it isn’t his. ‘She’s very good but a little over-enthusiastic at times,’ he explains. ‘She often brings you things you don’t actually want.’
The charity began operating in 1990 and now has more than 200 life-changing partnerships across the UK.
Ways to help include becoming a puppy parent (looking after and socialising a dog until it’s old enough for training at the centre), fundraising, becoming a speaker on the organisation’s behalf and sponsoring a puppy.
Visit caninepartners.org.uk, call 08456 580480 or email email@example.com
BARK IN THE PARK
Four-legged friends are being invited to put their best paw forward at Portsmouth’s Bark in the Park event tomorrow.
Dogs and their families can walk around the lake at 1000 Lakeside in Western Road to raise funds for Canine Partners.
As well as the walk (which can be sponsored), there will be activities and attractions including demonstrations by the charity’s dogs, a hog roast, barbecue, doggy treats, treasure hunt and magician.
Registration starts at 10am, dog walks start from 11am and activities run from 10am to 3pm.
Entry is £5 per dog and £2.50 for any additional dog. Spectators can watch the action free.
The event has been organised by Southern Co-operative which has selected Canine Partners as its corporate charity this year.
To register online visit caninepartners.org.uk/events-new/bark-in-the-park-1000-lakeside-portsmouth