You think your gundog is pretty smart when it finds and retrieves a pheasant from thick cover, or swims a tideway for a fallen teal and brings it to hand. Well? yes, but how would you rate a Labrador that could slip a card into a cash machine, extract cash in its mouth and pass it to its owner? So far it hasn?t yet learned to key in the pin numbers ? though that may happen soon ? but this is just one of 100 things a Canine Partner is expected to learn and put into practice to assist its wheelchair-bound companion and handler.
Canine Partners ? what?s it all about? Well, from 1986 to 1989, an exceptional lady, Anne Conway, established two organisations to help people with disabilities: Hearing Dogs and Assistance Dogs for Disabled People. Anne was joined by two other ladies, one of whom, Liz Ormerod, was a vet and is still a vice-president of what was to become Canine Partners.
The other was Nicky Pendleton, a professional therapist and current vice-chairman of Canine Partners. Initially, the Assistance Dogs for Disabled People had no money, no dogs and no staff, but by 1992 the organisation had become a charity, operating from Anne Conway?s house in Havant, Hampshire. That?s when they hired Nina Bondarenko, an Australian who bred Rottweilers, who was passionate about the orgagnisation and the relationship that exists between dogs and humans, and would take charge of training for the charity. In 1994, four dogs were trained and three were partnered with disabled people.
In 1997, the name of the charity was changed to Canine Partners for Independence (CPI), but it was soon realised that no-one really knew what CPI stood for and in 2002, the year current chief executive Terry Knott joined, the Trustees changed the name to Canine Partners. This charity has transformed the lives of 140 people with disabilities including cerebral palsy, polio, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal injuries and strokes. On completion of its training, a Canine Partner is able to respond to more than 100 commands, including those to open, load and unload a washing machine, retrieve items such as mobile phones, keys or crutches, pick items from supermarket shelves and put them in a basket, hand over a purse at checkout, assist with dressing and respond to various emergencies.
Last year, the Duke of Gloucester opened a new headquarters specifically designed for the charity and based on an old polo yard near Heyshott, close to Midhurst, in West Sussex. Surrounded by 24 acres of training ground, the CP headquarters provides an ideal setting, and includes purpose-built facilities for advanced training. When I visited the CP headquarters I met Terry, an ex-Royal Marine and businessman, and his 14-month-old labradoodle, Gaia. What, I asked, was the extent of the problem in terms of disabilities in this country?
Terry had spoken to then-Minister for the Disabled, Maria Eagle, but was told that she had no idea how many people in the UK were disabled ? the figure apparently varies between 6.5 and 10million, which means that one in five of us is registered disabled. In 2003, Terry commissioned a nationwide study to identify a targeted requirement for assistance dogs. The result was a demand from 60,000 to 80,000 people, yet the output of Guide Dogs, hearing dogs and Canine Partners is only 6,800 dogs, so there is a vast shortfall.
The aim of Canine Partners is to transform the life of a person with a disability, and usually confined to a wheelchair, through the dog?s active assistance. Types of dog selected by the charity tend to be large because the dog must be able to lean against the person to support them when they get in and out of a wheelchair, while the disabled person can also place a hand on the animal?s back for support. Labradors, golden retrievers, standard poodles and labradoodles are the types used mostly.
The dogs, usually bought from breeders, are taken at six to eight weeks old to the CPI headquarters. Donated dogs are rarely accepted because problems can occur if the dog doesn?t make the grade and has to be returned. With such high selection standards, only one in 12 dogs makes the grade. A series of tests on eyesight, hearing and amenability takes place and, having gone through this, some 40 per cent of dogs fail.
After two months at Canine Partners, a puppy is allocated to a volunteer ?puppy parent?, a person who is prepared to keep the youngster for a year. Canine Partners insists on the ?parent? visiting the headquarters once a week for a training session. ?Ostensibly, we?re training the puppy,? he told me, ?but in practice we?re training the parent.?
At 14 months old the dog comes back to Heyshott and is put through an eight to 10-month advanced training course. The range of commands taught increases from 10 to 100.Terry, accompanied by Gaia, took me to a unit used to train dogs for work in supermarkets. Gaia stood on her hind legs and carefully pressed a switch to operate sliding doors. Inside, I watched a Labrador called Teal take a wallet from able-bodied Rebecca Meaton, sitting in a wheelchair, to hand it to another trainer, Claire Anthony. Teal then took tins from a shelf and placed them in a basket.
Terry?s labradoodle is a successful crossbreed, with the stability of the Labrador and intelligence of the standard poodle. Now in its eighth generation of breeding true, and with two generations to go, it is being considered by the Kennel Club for registration as a breed. Terry, a keen shooter, works Gaia as a retriever. She has picked-up from an early age and is a natural.
Canine Partners keeps ownership of a dog allocated to a person with a disability, but a partnership may last as long as the dog is fit and healthy and the partner can manage and care for the animal. When it is time for a dog to retire, it can stay with its partner or a new home will be found for it. At all times, the dog?s well-being is at the heart of all decisions.
One advantage of a Canine Partner is that the disabled person acquires a sense of purpose and companionship, and can maintain strength and joint mobility during daily exercises, feeding, grooming and playing. Successful applicants for a Canine Partner undergo a rigorous assessment and, if accepted, are invited for an assessment to evaluate interaction with the dogs and pick the right dog for the right person.