Training a gundog to retrieve is one thing, but training a dog to transform someone's life is quite another. Alastair Balmain discovers the charity Canine Partners.

When it comes to working in harmony with our dogs, we shooters tend to think we have it taped. Granted, there are one or two unruly exceptions, but what we ask of our gundogs on a shoot day is demanding. Whether flushing game, retrieving birds or tracking deer, we rely heavily on the assistance of dogs — but our daily lives are not dependent upon them. Few of our dogs can take the washing out of the machine, for example, or open doors, call a lift, take money from the cash machine, select a tin of food off the shelf at mealtimes — or instinctively pull an alarm chord when we collapse.

Our dogs are clever, but the gundog breeds trained by the charity Canine Partners make picking-up a dead pheasant look like a pretty tame party trick. Established nearly 25 years ago, Canine Partners is an inspirational charity that trains assistance dogs for life with human partners who — whether through the onset of a disease such as multiple sclerosis or a disabling accident — have lost the ability to carry out their lives independently.

Last month, I visited the charity’s headquarters near Midhurst, in West Sussex, to learn more about the dogs’ training and how they transform lives. I was joined by Jimmy Zouche, a keen shooter who works a team of immaculately trained retrievers throughout the season. He knows a thing or two about gundog training, but the level Canine Partners operate at has impressed him to such an extent that he is now an ambassador in the West Country for the charity. In May he organised an event in Dorset that raised a staggering £30,000. He was forthright: “Your readers are doggie-minded,” he told me, “You need to see what these guys can do.”

Volunteers at Canine Partners

Parking in the grounds of the beautifully maintained Canine Partners National Training Centre in Heyshott, my first impression was that the charity clearly could afford the services of a diligent groundsman. I was quickly disabused of that notion: “Our two volunteers who put in the hours will be delighted you think that,” joked Myrid Ramsay, who works in the charity’s communications team, adding, “We simply couldn’t do what we do without the back-up of volunteers.” That’s an understatement.

2013 was the biggest year ever

The charity partnered 67 dogs last year — its biggest year ever — and each of those was the product of the charity’s 52 full-time staff, including trainers and office staff, but it is the volunteer network beyond that does more than simply tend the roses: there are “puppy parents” who look after the dog for the first 12-18 months of its life, support staff, aftercare assistants, foster parents and fund-raisers. It takes a huge amount in terms of time and resources (approximately £20,000), to put one dog in a home with a partner for life. So who are the people that benefit?

“We train our dogs for people who have lost their go, but not their determination,” Andy Cook, the charity’s chief executive, explained as we watched some of the dogs in advanced training. “In choosing a partner, we look to see that having a dog will improve their quality of life. Do they crave the strong motivation that looking after a dog will bring? The average age for our partners is 40 to 44, so these are people that will want to achieve the independence they’ve lost, whether it’s due to a spinal injury or Parkinson’s or a similar life-changing circumstance. We know from experience which dog suits — we look for chemistry and we find that the dogs we train almost gravitate towards people in wheelchairs.”

Labrador x retriever is the most successful dog type

Statistically, a Labrador x retriever is the most successful assistance dog type, with the right balance of temperament and ability, but other types are used as well, including poodle crosses. “Keeping them calm can be a challenge,” says Andy, “but about 10 per cent of our partners stipulate that their dog must have a nonmoulting coat.”

The dogs start their lives with puppy parent from seven to eight weeks. They will remain with them for approximately a year, during which time they are socialised and attend weekly puppy classes. At the end of that time, the volunteers then give their charges back to the National Training Centre, where 25 dogs at a time undergo advanced training for four to six months, living with foster families at the weekends.

The dogs’ advanced training is centred around three core skills: touching with noses to activate buttons such as panic alarms and light switches; tugging to take off clothes and open doors and retrieving objects. “Our puppy parents spend a great deal of time getting the dogs used to different materials,” explained Andy, “so that they can pick up a range of things from a paperclip to a crutch or a prosthetic limb.”

The full-time trainers on site are each responsible for training four dogs at a time and while the dogs are at Heyshott, or the charity’s newly opened site in Leicestershire, they will be prepared for a two-week residential handover training course, during which the human partner is introduced to the dog and its abilities. “We’ll deliberately hold back tasks for the partners to train in,” says Myrid, “Training is an ongoing process and we want the partnership to develop. One of our dogs — a six-year-old Labrador named Eli — has been trained by his quadriplegic partner Lorna Marsh to perform more than 300 separate tasks.” Creating a partnership with a dog is about more than performing tasks, however.

canine partnersAs Stephen Brookes’ story illustrates, adding a sympathetic dog to someone’s life has a truly transformative effect.

“I joined the Royal Navy in 1996 at the age of 17 as a communications specialist. There was no other career I wanted. I progressed through the ranks and earned the Green Beret in the process. The pace of life was fast. I could be away on deployment for six months, home on leave for a few weeks and then preparing to go away again. It was hard on our young family, but it was a life we all enjoyed and found fulfilling.

“In October 2008, while travelling home from work, I was hit from behind by a car and thrown from my motorbike. I was left paralysed from my shoulders down for the rest of my life. My world collapsed. I spent a year in various hospitals and I heard about Canine Partners when I was at Salisbury spinal unit, but it was later on when I transferred to Headley Court military rehab unit that I asked my occupational therapist to arrange a visit.

“I met these amazing dogs and saw how one could help me. What stood out was her unique kinked tail and her expression. As the training course went on and I was alone on exercise I found myself talking to her. She understands exactly what I am saying; exactly how I am feeling; and unlike my wife, she can’t answer back!

“As our partnership has progressed I think how well the charity matched us. They’ve taken everything into consideration — my lifestyle and our family situation —and Kizzie slotted straight in. When I need her she is there. She gets those difficult lift buttons that are out of my reach. In a shop, she grabs my wallet and passes it to the cashier. I always felt self-conscious in a wheelchair, but now I know people are looking at Kizzie.

“I don’t have to take a carer when I go out. My wife doesn’t worry about me. If I get into trouble and drop the phone, Kizzie will pick it up. I don’t even have to ask. I never had to do the washing before, but because Kizzie can unload and load the washing machine, it is one perk my wife has gained!

“The real reward I have from Kizzie is the life she has helped me regain. With her, I can now take my daughters out to play again in the park. They love throwing the ball for Kizzie — walks are not so boring with Daddy now.”

Consequently Canine Partners has big plans for expansion, but to do so it needs support. The charity eventually hopes to establish six or seven regional centres around the UK to help satisfy the demand of a fraction of the 10-20,000 people that it believes could benefit from its unique service.

Could you help by becoming a puppy parent?

Canine Partners is seeking the support of the shooting community from people who would be keen to act as puppy parents. From the age of seven to eight weeks, puppies are homed with volunteers to be socialised and brought up in a loving household for anything from two to 12 months, until advanced training is started by the charity.

There are 13 puppy training satellites nationwide and puppy parents are expected to attend regular training classes to prepare dogs for their life ahead. The role is hugely rewarding and volunteers have the opportunity to stay in touch with the people involved to see how their dogs transform lives.

If you have the time to dedicate to training and classes and, more importantly, the emotional strength to wave goodbye to your puppy when your work is done, please contact Canine Partners by emailing puppyoffice@caninepartners.org.uk or tel 01730 716017.