The Care Dogs transforming lives in Lancashire

PUBLISHED: 00:16 07 March 2011 | UPDATED: 18:59 20 February 2013

The Care Dogs transforming lives in Lancashire

The Care Dogs transforming lives in Lancashire

Remarkable dogs and their dedicated training are transforming the lives of Lancashire people suffering severe disabilities. We talk to two.

If you ever doubted that dog was mans best friend, then you should watch Vinnie take off Les Pearsons socks with his teeth.

Its something you wouldnt ask your closest pal to do unless big money or strong drink was involved. In Vinnies case, a small doggie treat will suffice.

Vinnie was Lancashires first care dog. This handsome Italian Spinone hunting dog sports the moustache of a regimental sergeant major, but
he takes the orders rather than barking them out. In fact, barking is strictly for emergencies.

His master, Les Pearson, was an engineer in the Royal Air Force until a series of catastrophic events brought his service to a juddering halt. A severely damaged kneecap required surgery but poor Les was dropped in an operating theatre accident. His spine was damaged and he is now barely able to walk.

For several years his wife Pam was his sole carer until they heard about Dogs for the Disabled. Everyone knows about guide dogs for the blind, but few have heard about care dogs, says Pam.

The charity gives disabled people independence by providing remarkable dogs which are trained to complete a range of jobs, from opening doors, taking off clothes to even emptying the washing machine.

You apply and its a bit like a dating service, says Les, who is 52 and originally from Chadderton, near Oldham. They match the dog to the owner. Yes, theyre both stubborn, laughs Pam.

Hed always wanted a chocolate Labrador and was delighted when one arrived at his Blackpool home with an official from the charity. It was love at first sight, adds Les. Sadly, when I tried to walk with the dog he was just too boisterous for me.

They all accepted the Lab wasnt right, with the charity worker telling him: We arent just looking for a good dog for you - we need the perfect dog.

The charity assesses the clients needs and then specially adapts the training to match the disability. Although Spinones hadnt been used before as care dogs, Vinnie and Les hit it off and Les had to go for training, too. I checked the itinery and it said there was a session on obedience, he says. Then I realised it was me that had to learn obedience!

As well as being a great help, hes also a great companion. If youre feeling a bit fed up, these dogs are trained to put their head in your lap just to let you know hes there.

It has also been liberating for Pam. Vinnie has given me the confidence to leave Les on his own, she says. Vinnie is still encouraged to be a
dog and he has a wicked sense of humour. He gets a dog treat for bringing Les the TV remote. When he feels like another treat he takes the remote away and then brings it back, especially for a reward.

He also gets a reward for helping Les to undress at bedtime. That can lead to Vinnie impatiently trying to nudge a reluctant Les to bed long before it gets dark.

Like a good butler, Vinnie knows when he is properly dressed - in his case, its a yellow fluorescent coat - he is on duty and must take things seriously. I feel indebted to Dogs for the Disabled, says Les. We help with collections and attend shows - anything we can to raise awareness.

While shopping in his wheelchair, Vinnie will get Less wallet from his jacket, take off his gloves and even use his nose to press buttons to open electronic doors.

The trouble is hes so popular that going to the supermarket for a loaf of bread can take two hours!

A helper called Hatti

The smile from Zoe Vickers lights up the room when care dog Hatti makes an appearance.

The Helmshore youngster was paralysed from the chest down as a result of an operation on her spine in 2006. But the chocolate Labrador has transformed her life.

Although theyve only been together for a relatively short time, Zoes mum Helen has already seen the difference Hatti is making to Zoes life,

Before we had Hatti, Zoe didnt like to spend any time alone in her room. She was always worried that I might not hear her or know if she needed help. Now we have Hatti, Zoe spends lots more time on her own in her room, and with the door shut - something she would never have done before, because she knows that Hatti can open the door for her. Hatti is helping make Zoe more independent.

At the beginning of 2008, Zoe helped her mum track down Dogs for the Disabled via the internet and got in touch to see what services they could offer. The next step was to attend an information day held at the charitys North of England centre just outside Wakefield.

At the workshop, they saw how each dog is trained to open doors using a rope, push automatic door opening buttons, retrieve items a child might drop such as a book or pen, and help raise the alarm by barking.

After their visit, Zoe and Helen set about applying for an assistance dog. Zoe was so keen to get involved with the programme that she wrote a letter to the charity explaining how she felt an assistance dog could really benefit her life.

There is one more thing I need an assistance dog for, companionship and friendship. So please give me an assistance dog as it will change my life and my familys life, she wrote.

Now, five months later, the team of Helen, Zoe and Hatti have just qualified and are now a full-fledged assistance dog team. Zoes confidence has really grown. People now come up and chat to her about Hatti, and that is helping to build Zoes confidence when were out and about, says her mum.

How does Hatti make Zoe feel? Shes really important to me, shes like one of my best friends.

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