Dillon the skateboarding labradoodle from Hesketh Bank
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 September 2018
Emily Rothery meets an inspiring woman who has overcome adversity with a helping paw from a remarkable dog
From being a youngster, Deborah Cornwall has loved the outdoors. ‘As a family we’d go caravanning, fell walking and swimming in the Lake District. I was most definitely an outdoor girl and loved playing sport.’ But for Deborah, now in her 50s, life changed dramatically when at the age of 23 she fell in a climbing accident in North Wales. ‘Everything changed in a split second, I became paralysed from the chest down and after being air lifted to Bangor I was transferred to Southport Spinal Centre where the long process of rehabilitation began.’
Despite the many hurdles that Deborah has had to overcome, the first thing that I notice is her smile as she tells me about her determination to resume driving and take up her teaching career again. ‘I knew that I just had to get on with it and fight my way back. I had lost my secondary school job while in intensive care but with fantastic help from the occupational therapist, Spinal Centre and teaching union, in just under a year I was offered a full-time position, as a supernumerary, in primary education.
‘I taught all subjects, coached netball and gymnastics to demonstration level, showing that being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop you achieving. It was fabulous, I just loved it and the school’s acceptance helped me a lot.’
Over the past nine years Deborah’s involvement with the charity Dog A.I.D has also helped her immeasurably. Her smile broadens as she introduces me to Dillon, a three-year-old miniature labradoodle. Dillon lies at her feet, raising one quizzical eyebrow when he senses that there is a task to be done.
Previously Deborah, who lives in Hesketh Bank, had trained her bichon cross miniature poodle through Dog A.I.D. ‘He was such a lovely dog. He helped me with practical tasks and gave me so much confidence. He seemed to second guess my needs so when we lost him suddenly, his passing left a huge whole. When I was ready to begin training another dog I selected Dillon from the litter because he was the inquisitive one. I like to think that he chose me!’
‘With the help of the volunteer trainer, Elaine Fairhurst, we started training Dillon through fun and games and positive reinforcement and he qualified at just 19 months.’ All it takes is a quiet request from Deborah and Dillon will promptly fetch named items, such as keys, purse, phone or slippers. He’ll bring his own dish and if it’s not in the usual place he won’t give up until he’s found it.
‘An important part of training is to teach him to release things because there’s no point in training him to take off my socks or trousers if he’s going to run off with them!’ laughs Deborah as she rewards Dillon with a treat.
Rather than chasing the postman, Dillon listens for post dropping onto the mat and carries it carefully to Deborah. With doggy diligence he empties the washing machine, opens cupboards and drawers, helps with the shopping and even puts his own toys away. ‘He will bring my medical purse from the cupboard when I need it and take a Kong dog toy to my husband John to let him know I need help.’
‘Having the dogs has made me less reliant on other people. They’ve opened so many doors for me and given me confidence. When we go out it feels less lonely as lots of people stop and chat to us especially when they see Dillon’s distinctive work jacket. He is well known in our village and I’m pleased that the wider community is becoming more aware of the fantastic work that assistance dogs do. It also gives John peace of mind knowing that Dillon is looking after me. We have a very strong bond and it makes me feel very proud that I have trained him to such a high level.’ It’s almost as if the clever canine has a sixth sense when it comes to Deborah’s needs. After recently breaking her leg, Dillon has become more protective of her and when other dogs approach he intuitively leads them away to play.
In appreciation of the charity that has given them so much, Deborah and Dillon have become very involved in doing talks and demonstrations to spread the good word about Dog A.I.D. ‘We’ve visited Crufts and we’ve just celebrated 25 years of Dog A.I.D where Dillon and I did demonstrations. It’s a fantastic organisation, more like a very supportive family really.’ Deborah also volunteers at Southport Spinal Centre, talking to patients and their family, helping them as the try to come to terms with the major life changes that Deborah knows only too well. ‘Dillon is great favourite there too and can be a great comfort,’ she says. ‘He’s such a happy, cheeky boy and always wants to do the best for me so I make sure that he has plenty of play and stimulation.’ With that in mind, Deborah’s large garden is being used to teach him to play basketball, stacking cups and even skateboarding!
Dog A.I.D (Assistance in Disability) is a voluntary organisation that provides disabled people, over 15 years of age, with the knowledge and skills to train their own pet dog to become a qualified Assistance Dog. Dedicated trainers and Assessors work on a voluntary basis across the UK and currently the organisation is looking for more trainers to improve the quality of life for more people.