A motorbike accident left him paralysed, but man’s best friend is helping Steve Brookes rebuild his life. He tells SARAH FOSTER about the special bond he shares with his dog, Kizzie.
Adventure and excitement had been regular fixtures in Steve Brookes’ life for years.
Joining the Royal Navy at the age of 17 had allowed him to travel the world, and regular deployments to the Caribbean meant he was frequently away from home.
But all of that came to a sudden halt when a motorbike accident left him paralysed and in a wheelchair.
The once active father-of-two saw his future change in a split second – and it was terrifying.
He’d been used to taking part in fast-paced anti-drug patrols. Now he couldn’t get to the village shop without a carer by his side.
Sitting in the converted home he shares with wife Nicola and their children Grace and Emily, he explains how he’s come to terms with his devastating injury. And as he talks, there’s another family member who never leaves his side.
While Steve remembers the depression, anxiety and anger he felt after the accident, faithful friend Kizzie slumbers at an arm’s length away.
This three-year-old golden retriever Labrador cross isn’t a pet designed to bring him comfort. Yet she is a constant companion as she works to make life easier for her master.
Ultimately, the bond they share means a lot to Steve because this assistance dog is his passport to the independence he values so much.
‘If I want to go out to the shop to get a pint of milk, I can do, and I can do it by myself,’ explains Steve, as he gives Kizzie a loving pat.
‘I’ve got the independence to do that and that means everything.
‘The injury robbed me. I was robbed of my independence that day.
‘To be grateful to a dog for giving you your independence back, well it’s almost crazy. But it means a lot. I’m so grateful.’
It was Kizzie’s wonky tail and expressive face that first caught his eye when the pair were introduced by the charity Canine Partners. That was last June and the instant bond that was formed means they’ve been together ever since.
Kizzie can do all sorts of helpful tasks, from picking up Steve’s phone and placing it on his lap, to getting his wallet out in a shop.
When Kizzie is wearing her special purple work jacket, she knows she’s on duty. And that means responding to every movement Steve makes, as well as all his vocal commands.
The 32-year-old had been attached to the Royal Marines in Poole at the time of the accident in October 2008.
He was on his way home when his motorbike was hit from behind by a car. And when Nicola arrived at the hospital, the couple were told Steve had broken his neck.
‘I remember her holding my hand but I couldn’t feel her hand in mine,’ says Steve.
‘The first thing I said was “I won’t be able to hold Grace or Emily again”.
‘To be told that does rock your world. I was just looking at Nicola and thinking “Is this for real? Is this happening? How is this happening to me?”
‘It’s the sort of thing you see in a film. I was going home for Shepherd’s pie. I’d never broken a bone in my body, never been in hospital.’
Steve was told he’d be paralysed from the neck down but has worked hard at his physiotherapy and can now move his shoulders and bend his arms. He spent almost a year in hospital – first at the spinal unit in Salisbury and then at Headley Court, the rehabilitation centre for injured service personnel in Surrey.
‘The biggest part of rehabilitation is coming to terms with your injury and the change in your life,’ he explains.
‘I’m a father and a husband. I’ve got a house and a mortgage. How was I going to provide for my family?
‘I felt sorry for myself to begin with. As soon as I came to terms with it, I needed to move forward, I needed to get home. When I got to Headley Court I knew what I needed to do to get better.’
Extra physiotherapy allowed him to push himself harder and he felt himself getting stronger and stronger. Meanwhile, Nicola was busy overseeing the renovation of their new home in Titchfield, making sure it was ready for Steve’s return.
‘I was chomping at the bit to get out,’ he adds. ‘My wife had found this house and a great builder who gutted it out and had it ready in three-and-a-half months. I’d never even seen the place, Nicola had done it all.
‘She was coming to see me, taking Grace to school, bringing the kids to see me, chasing the builder or on the phone to me. She’s amazing.’
It was during his time at Salisbury that Steve had first seen a leaflet for Canine Partners.
The charity trains dogs like Kizzie and when he saw a second leaflet at Headley Court, Steve asked his occupational therapist to arrange a visit.
A demo dog was taken to see him and Steve was impressed when it had been trained to take off his trainer within five minutes.
‘I wanted one of those bad boys,’ he laughs.
‘I had to have a carer with me at all times and I realised the potential that this dog could bring.
‘If it could pick up things I’d dropped, or open a door, I could go out on my own. Even going round Headley Court, I couldn’t go anywhere without a carer in tow.’
He filled out his application form as soon as the visit was over and was delighted when he found out he’d been accepted, thanks to funding from Help for Heroes.
The charity then worked with Steve to help him learn how to work with a dog.
‘It’s hard to explain to the girls, she’s not a pet,’ says Steve, as Kizzie demonstrates how she can empty the washing machine and open doors.
‘This is daddy’s special working dog. When she’s got her jacket on she’s working for daddy.
‘When I take her to school to pick the girls up she gets mobbed by the kids.’
Kizzie needs stimulation to prevent her from getting bored so Steve’s always training her to do new things. Devising new tasks also gives him a challenge to work towards.
Now the pair have made it through to the final of a competition that recognises the bond they share and the important part Kizzie plays in Steve’s life.
If they win, Steve says it will be a great way to highlight the work that Canine Partners does.
‘I know that we’ve got a special bond but it would show other people that too,’ he says.
‘I do miss Kizz if we go out without her.’
He adds: ‘I met Kizzie and it’s like she chose me. We went into the field to play together and it was brilliant. She was really responsive to me, put her head on my lap and was always by my side.
‘She’s never more than a couple of steps away.’
* Five special dogs and their owners have made it through to the final of the Kennel Club’s Friends for Life competition.
Steve Brookes and his family will travel to the NEC in Birmingham on Sunday March 11 when the winner will be announced at the annual Crufts dog show.
The public will vote for the dog that they think has shown bravery and dedication to their owner.
TV presenter Clare Balding will announce the winner live on More4 during a special ceremony.
To vote for Steve and Kizzie, call 0844 646 0205.
The lines are open until about 6pm on Sunday March 11.
* It costs around £20,000 to take a dog like Kizzie and train her to be an assistance dog until the end of her working life.
The Midhurst-based charity Canine Partners was set up in 1990 and receives no government funding, relying solely on public donations instead.
Steve Brookes was the first partnership to be funded by the forces charity Help for Heroes.
Each dog is carefully matched to the applicant’s needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging. They are then trained to help with everyday tasks such as opening doors, unloading the washing machine, picking up dropped items, pressing buttons and switches and getting help in an emergency.
Dogs like Kizzie also provide practical, physiological, psychological and social benefits including increased independence and confidence as well as increased motivation and self-esteem.
To see video of Kizzie helping Steve, log on to portsmouth.co.uk/video and to find out more about the charity, log on to caninepartners.co.uk