A dog is much more than man’s best friend...

Steve Brookes and Kizzie
Steve Brookes and Kizzie
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As charity Canine Partners celebrates its silver anniversary, reporter Kimberley Barber talks to some of the people it has helped.

For more than 25 years Canine Partners has been helping people with physical disabilities to live independently.

Whether it be taking cash out of a cashpoint, answering the door, taking clothes out of the washing machine or just being a friendly and trusty companion, there’s no job too small for these incredible dogs.

The charity was formed in 1990 and has partnered 530 assistance dogs with disabled people across the UK.

Libby Rome, education officer, said: ‘With 2015 being our 25th anniversary year it is an exciting time for us in developing the charity.

‘These amazing dogs have changed the lives of those they are helping: restoring independence, giving family members peace of mind, allowing their disabled partners to return to work and even saving lives by responding in emergencies.’

Canine Partners receives no government funding and relies on donations.

It trains dogs to perform tasks such as opening and closing doors, undressing, pressing buttons, retrieving items and other everyday tasks that disabled people find difficult, painful or impossible to do for themselves.

It helps people with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, ME, spina bifida and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome gain independence, such as Kerenza Holzman, from Bognor Regis.

Kerenza has ME and complex regional pain syndrome and relies on her canine partner Whisky.

She said: ‘Canine Partners has changed my life in so many different ways, and been a massive influence on my immediate family.

‘Whisky gives me confidence and makes me get outside and feel part of society again.’

At the beginning of 2015 there were 306 working partnerships across the UK.

Through the charity’s connection with Help For Heroes, canine partners are helping former service personnel with their injuries and to overcome post-traumatic stress 
disorder, such as 35-year-old Royal Navy veteran Stephen Brookes.

Steve, from Fareham, was partnered with his canine assistant Kizzie in September 2011, funded by Help For Heroes.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1996 at the age of 17 as a communications specialist but in October 2008, while travelling home from work, he was hit from behind by a car and thrown from his motorbike, suffering a burst fracture of the neck which left him paralysed from his shoulders down.

Steve said: ‘I still remember to this day seeing my wife hold my hand and not being able to feel it.’

After years of various hospital treatments, he was transferred to Salisbury spinal unit where he first heard about Canine Partners.

When he was transferred to Headley Court military rehab unit he arranged a visit through his occupational therapist.

Steve said: ‘That’s when I met these amazing dogs and saw what they could do and how they could help me.

‘Before I met Kizzie I suffered a range of problems.

‘I lost a serious amount of weight in hospital as I refused to eat.

‘I suffered with anxiety and breathing difficulties. I was extremely sad, suffering from depression.

‘Coping with the transition from an active lifestyle into a wheelchair was soul-destroying for me as I could see the effect it was having on my family.’

‘When I met Kizzie, what stood out for me was her unique kinked tail and her facial expressions, especially her eyes.

‘As the training course went on and I was alone on exercise I found myself talking to Kizzie.

‘She looks at you almost as if she understands exactly what you’re saying and understanding – exactly how you’re feeling.

‘There was an instant bond between me and her; when I need her she is there.

‘When we go out and about she helps by getting those difficult lift buttons that are just out of my reach.

‘In a shop, grabbing my wallet and passing it to the cashier, she always draws the attention and gasps of amazement from other people in line.

‘I always felt a little self-conscious about being in a wheelchair, a feeling that everyone is looking at me, but now I know they’re just really looking at Kizzie.

‘She has given me a new lease of life.’

As the charity celebrates 25 years in action, the team is looking to fundraise enough to place another 80 dogs with disabled people.

Canine Partners CEO Andy Cook said: ‘This year is going to be exciting for all of us at the charity but to continue to grow and help as many applicants as possible, we need the public to support us.

‘Everyone can take part this year in one of our 25 challenges that are listed on our website. Even I am taking on a challenge – cycling from our southern centre to our midlands centre, which will be somewhere between 180 to 200 miles, all to raise money to train more dogs.

‘Or, if you have spare time, perhaps you could volunteer for us by becoming a puppy parent, and play a part in the early training of our amazing dogs. We are really hoping to expand during our 25th anniversary year, but we can’t do it without the help and commitment of the public.’

Case study: David Filmer and Zack

David, from Fareham, has congenital paraplegia and uses a wheelchair. He was partnered with labradoodle Zack, a former rescue dog from The Blue Cross, in March 2007.

This is his story:

‘I wouldn’t be without him. Zack has made it easier for me to cope at home without help from other people.

‘For many years, I suffered from depression but Zack has brought about a real change in my mental health.

‘Before I got Zack I used to have low patches on a regular basis, but now I rarely get them. Besides, I know Zack will cheer me up any way – he’s always so playful and cheeky, you could never stay sad in his company for long.

‘A few years ago, I moved to Portsmouth to take up a position as disability officer at the University of Portsmouth.

‘It took two years of job-hunting to find this position.

‘Being in different surroundings and not knowing many people, I wasn’t in a good position to make new friends.

‘I didn’t go out very much and was left at home feeling even worse.

‘Then I discovered Canine Partners and they explained that a working dog could accompany me to the office, as well as help me with many practical tasks.

‘What’s more, the dog would be a companion that would get me out of the house and socialising again – Zack has certainly done that.

‘He’s a bubbly dog, full of energy and bounce and needs to be taken out regularly for exercise.

‘Now when I have a low day, Zack is there to give me a cheery nudge to let him out, so I have to get out of bed.’

Case study: Ian Runnalls and Kelsey

Ian Runnalls from Gosport has multiple sclerosis and was partnered with Kelsey in 2009.

This is his story:

‘I am married with two children and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975.

‘Initially my symptoms affected my balance and led people to thinking I was drunk.

‘At this time my disability was manageable and in 1979 when my daughter was born, I was walking with sticks.

‘By the time my son was born in 1981, I was in a wheelchair and had to retire from work.

‘My wife returned to work, so I could stay at home. After the children went to go to school, this left me home alone with not a great deal to do.

‘I wasn’t meeting any new people and didn’t feel there was much purpose to my life.

‘I attended a talk about Canine Partners and realised they could help me.

‘Nine months later in 1999 I came home with Grayson.

‘He totally transformed my life, so when he unfortunately died in September 2007 I was absolutely devastated.

‘I said I wouldn’t have another canine partner.

‘However, as I went out and about on my own I realised that it just wasn’t the same without a four-legged helper.

‘I have now had canine partner Kelsey since 2009. She is wonderful and picks up anything I drop, which happens more and more frequently now.

‘She helps me with my coat, shoes and trousers, fetches my bag for me and so much more.

‘When we go out, I talk to people as they are no longer fearful of speaking to a person in a wheelchair.

‘When you have an assistance dog with you people’s attitudes towards you change.

‘Having a canine partner gives you a different way of life. Kelsey has given me back my life rather than it just wasting away.’

Transform Lives

CANINE Partners is on the look-out for volunteer education ambassadors to visit schools, colleges and youth groups to talk about the work the charity does.

Libby Rome, education officer, said: ‘We need people who are good communicators, adaptable and self-motivated for this home-based role.

‘This is a great way for us to spread the word about the work we do in training amazing assistance dogs to transform the lives of people with disabilities.’

Canine Partners will provide training for all education ambassadors, who will aim to carry out two to four talks a month which will be mainly during the day and term-time.

The volunteers, aged over 18 years old, will also need their own transport and regular email access.

To find out more or apply call 01730 716051 or e-mail education@caninepartners.org.uk.

About canine partners

IT is a registered charity that assists people with disabilities to enjoy a greater independence and quality of life through the provision of specially trained dogs.

More than 1.2m people in the UK use a wheelchair, and a significant number of those would benefit from a canine partner.

The dogs are matched to the applicant’s needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging.

They are trained to help with everyday tasks and provide practical, physiological, psychological and social benefits including increased independence and confidence.

A canine partner brings companionship, a sense of security and increases social interaction.

Canine Partners receives no government funding and is dependent on donations.

To find out more go to caninepartners.org.uk or call 08456 580480.