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Photography: Elliot Crouch and Caroline Bingham
Featured in the February 2011 issue

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Assistance dogs are still a rarity in Lincolnshire but the difference these clever canines can make to a disabled person’s life is tremendous. Caroline Bingham has been to meet the county’s first Canine Partner’s puppy parent and a fully trained dog now teamed with her disabled partner in Scunthorpe.

Sheila Wingell of North Hykeham, Lincoln has always loved animals but it was not until she reached a milestone birthday and had what she described as a ‘mid life crisis’ that she decided to start an animal welfare course at the University of Lincoln’s Riseholme campus. She had always worked in the care sector but now her focus was on animal care rather than human. She studied further to complete a grooming course but a workplace accident later thwarted her plans to start her own business. While on a trip to Crufts, Sheila spotted the Canine Partners stand where they were looking for volunteer puppy parents and so began her journey as Mum to budding assistance dogs.

I was met by Yachie, a five-month-old, black Labrador when I visited Sheila in her home. Yachie is the second puppy Sheila has parented and will live with the family until he is fourteen months old. Basic training can begin though from the day they arrive at eight weeks old as the tasks they will be expected to fulfil as adults are largely developed from games and play they enjoy as puppies. The tugging toy game finally becomes the helping someone to undress task.

Sheila had to go over her own hurdles in order to be taken on by Canine Partners. Her skill with dogs and commitment was assessed. She underwent a training course at the charity’s Head Office at Heyshott, West Sussex and when qualified she first became an after carer to make sure newly placed dogs settled into their new environment. This was the perfect marriage of Sheila’s caring and animal skills and work which she really enjoyed, seeing how much difference the dogs could make to people’s lives but she missed the nurturing and training element.

In her present role Sheila is responsible for teaching Yachie fifty basic voice commands and socialising him. He already responds to a whistle food command, can be recalled and is toilet trained to command. He goes on lots of walks, proudly wearing his Canine Partner’s distinctive purple jacket and visits supermarkets, restaurants and rides on buses to broaden his experience and confidence.

Canine Partners provide food for their puppies, leads and harnesses for the car and meet any vets bills that may be incurred but time, care and affection are the priceless elements that Sheila gives as a volunteer.

I asked her how hard it was to let go of her first puppy, Quenna, a black Lab bitch, when it was her time to move on. “I was sorry to hand her over but it is like sending your children into the world, Sheila told me. “You do your best to teach them and bring them on and knowing the difference they can make I feel incredibly proud when they make the grade.”

Sheila will be attending Quenna’s graduation ceremony in Heyshott next month at the end of her final training and is keen to hear when she will be matched up with her long term disabled partner. Sheila would love to see the work of Canine Partners grow in Lincolnshire. At present the nearest satellite office is in Hull and Louise Norman, the Hull Puppy Satellite Trainer says, “We need people from the local community to volunteer as puppy parents. We are looking for dog lovers who do not work, or only work part-time, to offer a loving home for our puppies whilst they learn the ropes to become a canine partner. You would need to attend weekly training courses at Hull and be willing to help socialise the puppy into environments including shops, public transport etc. We would cover vets bills and expenses for the duration of the relationship.”

Sheila hopes that she can be even more involved in the work of Canine Partners in Lincolnshire in the future as their work grows, perhaps managing a satellite office within the county. Meanwhile, Yachie and Sheila are helping to build awareness of trained assistance dogs and how they can transform the lives of people with the most complex disabilities every time they go out or ride on the bus. If you spot them in their distinctive purple livery, take time to have a chat – its all part of Yachie’s training and understanding what will be his role in the future.

‘PAWS’ FOR THOUGHT
Assistance dogs respond to 103 voice commands.
Over fifty trained dogs went out into the community in the UK last year.
More volunteers and puppy parents are always needed.
Adopt a Puppy from just £1 per week and receive a Pupdate every few weeks with photos and news on your puppy.

Contact Canine Partners at www.caninepartners.org.uk or call 08456 580480

GOLDEN GIRL
I had chance to appreciate the practical and therapeutic benefits of an assistance dog when I went to meet Peter Joy of Ashby, Scunthorpe and his canine partner, Innis, a beautiful, three-year-old golden retriever.

Just how eager to help and please Innis is was immediately apparent as she tried to carry my leather writing folder when I sat down. How could you not fall for those beautiful chocolate eyes and the intelligence which shines out but Innis is a working dog foremost as well as a companion.

Peter’s health has deteriorated over several years and even with the love and support of his wife, Linda, his conditions severely restrict his mobility and dexterity. Peter has good as well as bad days but a chance encounter at a garden centre while on holiday a couple of years ago finally led to him having Innis. Chatty by nature, he fell into conversation with a couple who were Canine Partners puppy parents, out with their latest trainee. Peter had never heard of an assistance dog before but realised this was something which could potentially enhance his life.

Listening to Peter explain the selection process he had to go through before he was teamed with Innis, it is clear that the owners are trained just as much, if not more so, than the dogs. “I love dogs and have kept them all my life but this is a situation where the dog chooses you rather than the other way round,” he explained. “After the initial selection interviews and assessment for suitability, I had four days training, meeting six or seven different dogs. I really felt a strong connection with Innis and was thrilled when the Canine Partners staff agreed I was a good choice for her.” A further two weeks intensive residential training followed so that Peter could work exclusively with Innis before she was introduced to her new home and duties.

She has made a huge difference to Peter’s life. Innis responds to 103 voice commands and starts the day by getting Peter’s clothes from the drawer and laying them on his bed. She can help him to dress and undress, fetch and carry, and pick up items Peter drops. Part of the undertaking is that Innis will get a minimum of one hour’s exercise a day which gets Peter out of the house. She walks alongside his wheelchair and accompanies him in his car to the supermarket where she can collect packaged, non perishable items from the shelves. Proudly wearing her Canine Partners jacket, she always draws attention but a message is printed clearly that she is a working dog and people should resist distracting her while on duty.

“If I am having a bad day Innis comes and lies with me,” Peter said, “and she seems to know that I won’t be getting up and I will need more help. She is so intelligent that sometimes she anticipates what I need. She is beautiful and I cannot imagine life without her now.”

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