Arrive at Allen Parton?s door, ring the bell, and you will be deafened by the barking from what sounds like a pack of elephant-sized dogs within. Walk in, trembling, and you will be met by Ikea, a fluffy golden retriever carrying a cushion, and a large yellow Labrador leaping around on the sofa. This is Endal. Dog of the Millennium and Dickin Medal holder ? among many other awards ? and personal assistant to Allen.
Every wall in Allen?s home is festooned with pictures of Endal, Ikea and the puppies that his wife Sandra has walked for the charity Canine Partners, which helps people with disabilities to enjoy a better quality of life through the help of specially trained assistance dogs. As Allen began to tell of the events that led to his and Endal?s extraordinary partnership, Ikea reclined by the sofa and Endal settled quietly by his side.
In 1991, Allen, a weapons electronics officer in the Royal Navy, deployed for the Gulf War. Within a month, he was involved in a horrific road traffic accident that left him without feeling in his right-hand side and half his memory. He couldn?t talk properly, read or write. Worse still, he had no memory of his marriage or children. ?I didn?t know my wife. I didn?t like her.
The children were noisy and I didn?t like them either.? Allen admits that he was tormented by depression and wretched to be with. ?I was like a cancer in the family ? totally destructive,? he said, stroking Endal?s head. Deciding that a puppy might bring some light-hearted entertainment into the household and perhaps help remove Allen from his despair, Sandra contacted Canine Partners (www.caninepartners.co.uk) and applied to become one of the puppy walkers for their assistance dogs.
One morning when the bus to take Allen to his day care centre did not arrive, Sandra took him along to watch a puppy class. It was the chance meeting with a young yellow Labrador puppy, which had a bit of an attitude problem, that was the start of Allen?s future with the then untrained 11-month-old Endal.
Endal has esteemed working ancestors ? his pedigree can be traced back 26 generations to Buccleuch Avon, born in 1885 ? and he is no stranger to the shooting field. His puppy parent used to take him out shooting and picking-up on the Cowdray estate. She wasn?t supposed to, but it seems to have done him no harm. Those early days out shooting can only have encouraged Endal?s natural ability, intelligence and keenness to work.
In reality, of course, Endal?s job is far more complex than that of a usual retriever, though his need to problem solve, think about what he is getting, where it is, how to get it and how to return it to Allen is no different to the process another dog goes through to pick-up game. Due to his head injury, Allen often forgets the word for an item ? he knows what it is and does, just cannot remember what it is called. In the early days of their partnership, when the words wouldn?t come, Allen had to describe in a kind of sign language what he needed.
It didn?t take Endal long to clock on to what he required: when Allen wants his cap, he pats the top of his head; Endal nips round to the back of the wheelchair, noses through the contents, picks out the cap and delivers it to hand. It?s impressive to watch. He can also open the washing machine door, pull out the washing, give it to Allen and then shut the door behind him ? he is a perfectionist and extremely tidy. He also chooses Allen?s cereal in the morning.
?I?ll ask him to go and get my razor now,? said Allen, rubbing the side of his face with his hand. ?I don?t know where it is actually, but I am sure he?ll find it.? Endal dashed off upstairs into the bedroom. After listening to him padding about for a few seconds, he reappeared with the razor in its case and delivered it to Allen. Now, that really was clever. Endal, however, was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing and sat down next to Allen with a heavy sigh, shut his eyes and went back to sleep.
What sets Endal apart from other assistance dogs, though, is that he has not been trained to do any of these tasks, he acts purely on instinct and initiative. ?I was staying in a hotel the other night and had got into bed when I realised the bathroom light was still on. I said to Endal, ?Get off the bed and turn the light off will you.? He jumped off the bed, turned off the light and got back on the bed. The next day it suddenly occurred to me that I didn?t know where the light switch was, whether it was outside the bathroom, inside the bathroom, a pull switch or what. He just worked it out.?
Just some of Endal?s other talents include working the cash machine, doing the shopping, fetching items from the cupboard at home and collecting the post.
The true measure of Endal?s ability came to light a few years ago when he and Allen were hit by a car. Having been knocked out of his wheelchair and lying unconscious, Endal pulled Allen into the recovery position, fetched a blanket from the upside down wheelchair and put it over him. Then he retrieved Allen?s mobile phone from under a nearby car and put it by his face. When he couldn?t wake Allen, Endal rushed off to the hotel and got help. For this he won the PDSA Gold medal, the animals? George Cross for bravery and devotion to duty.
The pair?s devotion to one another is undeniable. Not only does Endal watch Allen?s every move, ready to help him in any way he can and prepared to save his life at the drop of a hat, but through his good nature, character and constant presence, he provides Allen with a confidence and independence that he never thought would be achievable after his accident. He?s also a great ice-breaker. ?You need Mr Cuddly here when you are getting in a lift with other people. A lot of people are afraid of dogs, and it?s not surprising really. Dogs are being pushed to the fringes of society ? I am so lucky that I can take Endal anywhere with me, on the train, on planes, in shops and to the pub, where he barks until he is served ? very handy!?
Endal is 10 years old now, so the search is on for ?EJ? ? Endal Junior. ?I would like to find a young dog that can work alongside Endal and slowly learn the tasks he does naturally for me,? said Allen. Endal suffers from OCD, which has to be carefully monitored since much of his work involves jumping up to reach things. ?As both of us grow older, we are going to be less mobile, and I will need a dog that can cope with that. One day I will put my hand down beside me and he will not be there,? said Allen, stroking Endal?s head again.
It is a special relationship between man and dog, as anyone who has enjoyed the company of and been lucky enough to work a great dog will know. ?Endal is a thinking dog and is instinctively clever. But he is just a dog that enjoys doing normal doggy things. We are not unique, anyone can have a relationship with their dog, they just have to know how to do it.
?There has to be team spirit ? the message you send down the lead will come back up it. I had lost all emotion and tried to commit suicide twice by the time I met Endal. Love, hate, happiness, sadness ? all those feelings were alien to me. I was in the darkest, most soulless place imaginable. If there?s any animal on the planet that can teach you love, it?s got to be a dog.
?I think of my life as a puzzle that was blown apart in the Gulf War. Endal is bringing back the pieces and helping me to put the puzzle back together.? Allen accepts that he was one of the lucky ones, but points out that though the ever-increasing numbers of servicemen who have died on operational tours is appalling, nothing is said about those with horrific life changing and life-destroying injuries from which they must rehabilitate. ?If it hadn?t been for Endal, I would be another statistic wasting away in a war pensioners? home. He has given me so much of my life back. He is there for me, unconditionally.
?Everyone says guardian angels have two legs. Well, mine has four,? said Allen, gently touching the top of Endal?s head.