Prior to April 2014 I was what you could class as an adrenalin junkie. Mountain biking, motorcycling, climbing, caving, kayaking and scuba diving. Sharing amazing experiences with friends and Deb who I have been married to since 2003.
On 5th April our world stopped turning as I had a serious accident whilst mountain biking with friends. My injuries were severe and at the time life threatening. Soon it became apparent that I was and would remain paralysed from the chest down as I had severed my spinal cord. I also punctured both lungs, broke most of my ribs and my right shoulder. My beloved 24-year operational career as a fire officer was brought to an abrupt halt, I retired to pension on ill health.
Many months followed as an inpatient at the Yorkshire Region Spinal Injuries Unit, learning to live with and deal with a complete spinal cord injury. After many months, I was discharged from hospital and began living and adjusting to my new norm. During my rehabilitation I had to relearn how to complete everything I did as an adult but from a wheelchair. Everyday tasks such as reading, writing, getting dressed / undressed, washed, all day to day skills that I, like most pre-injury, simply took for granted. I was a free person before my accident, able to wander were and when I pleased. I was a strong person who rarely felt vulnerable.
During my first few months living at home a colleague made me aware of Hounds for Heroes. I was truly amazed at what help an assistance dog could provide and submitted my application. I was invited to attend a consultation with the Hounds for Heroes team at their head office. Nothing was promised or offered at this stage, it was purely an occasion to meet the team, and for Deb and I to be told more about what assistance dogs do, what partnering with a dog involves, and what expectations and commitment would be required by Hounds for Heroes and ourselves should we be offered a dog in the future. I was struck at how much emphasis was placed on ensuring the continued safety and welfare of any dogs that are offered as partners. I learned that the partnership of a person and a dog is a very special relationship, far more intense than that of a pet and owner. Deb and I had always had a pet dog. Archie was our beloved Dalmatian, who had passed away soon after I came out of hospital.
A partnership with an assistance dog is about developing and becoming a team. A very strong bond is vital for the relationship to work.
Task work is made fun for both and is rewarding for both. If it is not, then any dog would lose interest quite quickly. The relationship is also about being mutually beneficial. The human partner needs help with things, but the dog has needs too. A dog that is just asked to work all of the time would soon get frustrated. The key to the relationship is that the dog you are partnered with is stimulated and is allowed to have down time. At the end of every day he is a dog, and has dog wants and needs. Time to run free with other dogs, time to just sniff everything he wants and of course play. Play is also how task work is developed. If something is rewarding and fun for your dog, then it will be happy to repeat your request.
I have had Merlin for over two years now and the bond we share is well and truly established. I have had to learn what Merlin likes and what makes him tick. More importantly, I have also learned what he doesn’t like, strange things like metal grates under his paws for instance. Merlin helps me around the home. Simple things give him so much pleasure: helping me empty the washing machine or picking up the mail first thing in the morning, tail wagging as he does these. He watches me intently and will follow me around the house, always there if I need him. I am so grateful for his help but always ensure it is fun and rewarding for him.
Having Merlin with me when I am out and about is also fantastic. You soon realise that if you become disabled, as in my case a wheelchair user, you are far more vulnerable than you were before. Having Merlin walking to heel at my side gives me a massive boost in confidence. I am never alone and always have my best friend at my side.
His willingness to help has got me out of a few pickles. Last spring, I was making my way down a steep slope near my home. The path was very slippery, to the point where I had to put my front wheelchair wheels against a wall at the side of the path to hold me stationary. The kerb on the road side was huge so I had nowhere to go safely. I took out my mobile to ring for help then promptly dropped it down the steep path. Merlin retrieved it and brought it back to my hand enabling me to ring for help.
I know that I am so fortunate to have Merlin as my assistance dog. I respect his needs and always ensure his welfare comes first and foremost. Merlin has enhanced my life beyond words. We rely on each other. The team at Hound for Heroes are brilliant, the support you receive is fantastic. Frequent support visits at first, that reduce as and when you get more established as a team. Always there to offer support if you need it.
I would recommend anyone who is eligible to apply, it could well change your life.