Canine Partners is one of the remarkable charities supported in 2021’s Candis Big Give. Miriam Bentley-Rose from Leicestershire explains how her assistance dog, Laurel, has brought her independence, confidence, and a brand new best friend
Laurel – a black Labrador aged four – is not your average dog. She was trained from a puppy as an assistance dog for someone living with a disability, then matched in March 2018 with Miriam, after she developed leg paralysis. “I had always been extremely fit and active – running a house, caring for three children, and working hard in my sales career for a magazine company,” Miriam says. “I would also go running most days and would race at weekends. “However, in 2002, my hip started to hurt when running. My GP referred me to a consultant at the hospital. X-rays and an MRI scan revealed I had grown extra bone on my hip, which was causing internal tearing of the joint, so I was given surgery to shave off some of the bone. The surgery went well and I returned to running.”
In 2012, the pain returned. “After many tests and appointments, I was told I would need surgery again to remove the bone that had grown back, which was scheduled for June 2014. The surgery went so well the previous time I wasn’t worried. But little did I know as I walked down to the theatre that I would never walk unaided again.” Complications from the surgery – for which a block had been put on the femoral nerve in her leg – left Miriam with no feeling or movement in her right leg. “It became clear the feeling and use were not coming back, and I spent six months in bed, depressed. “I was career-driven but couldn’t do my job any more, as it involved visiting people and the world didn’t seem set up for people with mobility problems. I struggled even to get into my office, which had lots of steps leading up to it. I also felt like I couldn’t be a mum to my three children – who were 9, 10 and 12 – and they and my partner became my full-time carers. I had no motivation to do anything. I felt useless, and several times I considered not carrying on.”
In 2016, Miriam was attending Crufts with her family when she noticed a stand by Canine Partners. “They told me how the dogs could be of help with things such as fetching and picking up items, helping to undress you, and loading washing machines. I presumed I wouldn’t be disabled enough but they reassured me I could apply, so I did.”
After 18 months, Miriam was matched with a dog. “I had started working in equalities for the council and was in the office when Sophie – Laurel’s advanced trainer – called to tell me they had a dog available who could be suitable for me. I couldn’t wait to meet her!”
Miriam was introduced to Laurel and invited for a two-week residential stay at one of the charity’s centres, where she worked with an advanced trainer to prepare for life with an assistance dog. “They show you how best to work with your dog so they obey your commands, and go around town with you both, taking you into a variety of situations so you’re never facing something new on your own. Afterwards, I was able to take Laurel home and given an aftercare trainer – who does regular visits to make sure everything is OK, and is always on the end of the phone.” Miriam and Laurel proved to be a great team. “She helps physically with a variety of tasks, such as picking up dropped items and helping me to get undressed by tugging off my clothes. She’ll also bring me my crutches when I need them and pick up dirty washing off the children’s bedroom floors.
“One thing that surprised me, though, is how much of an emotional support she is. I still have dark days, when the pain is too much and I’m dropping everything I try to hold. However, Laurel’s favourite game is picking up dropped items and giving them to me so I know my dark days are probably her favourite, and that knowledge alone makes them less dark! Her routine also keeps me grounded and her cuddles drain negativity and worry from me. She knows when I get sad or anxious and has started pushing her head under my arm to force me to cuddle her. It makes me switch my head from worrying thoughts to her and that is worth so much right now.”
Miriam’s family have also benefited from Laurel joining them. “It’s given them great peace of mind. After a couple of weeks of me having her, my son said to me, ‘I’m pleased you’ve got Laurel because I don’t have to worry about you when I’m at school any more.’ I had no idea my children were worried about me falling over, but now they know that if I do, Laurel will fetch me the phone, or help me to get back up again by bringing me my wheelchair or crutches.
“I have not only regained my independence, but my children have got their mum back, and my husband has got back his partner now he doesn’t also have to be my carer.”
Almost six years after believing her life was over, Miriam is amazed to note how far it has come. “I have finished my master’s degree and am now working towards my PhD, I have spoken at conferences around the UK, and I have delivered equality and diversity training to hundreds of people. My career is back on track and I owe it all to Laurel.
“She has given me the ability, independence and confidence to be able to jump back in and further my career, which means I can make a difference to others through the work
I do. Canine Partners saved my life. It gave me the confidence to continue chasing my dreams!”
Help Canine Partners to keep training amazing dogs
Fundraising target: £110,000
Canine Partners provides specialist training to assistance dogs, so they can support people with physical disabilities including MS, cerebral palsy and spinal injury with tasks such as getting the washing out of the machine, retrieving the post, getting doors open or helping someone to get undressed.
Puppies initially attend foundation training to work on socialisation and basic skills, before doing 15 weeks of advanced training. Once matched with a partner, the partner will be invited on a two-week training course at one of the two training centres – in the Midlands or at the Southern Centre – where the dogs will undertake bespoke training with the needs of their specific partner in mind, and they can experience a variety of situations together while under the supervision of a trainer. The partner will then have ongoing support from the aftercare team. The money raised in The Candis Big Give will allow the charity to continue training assistance dogs to help as many physically disabled people as possible in the coming years, giving hope to the hundreds of people on the charity’s waiting list. The practical and day-to-day support provided by a canine partner means that individuals can become less reliant on friends, family members and carers, while the dogs also provide psychological, emotional and social benefits, meaning that people are empowered to get back out in their community, return to work and explore new opportunities.
What Canine Partners means to me
Ann Paskouis, an advanced support trainer, explains why she loves working for the charity
“I have worked for Canine Partners since 2007, initially as part of the team at the Southern Training Centre and then moving up to start the charity’s Midlands Training Centre in Leicestershire in 2012. I normally work in part of the advanced training team – working with dogs in the later stage of training – but have recently been seconded to the aftercare team, which looks after the charity’s 400-plus partnerships across the UK.
Having done a degree in animal behaviour and worked with people with disabilities,
I always knew I wanted a job that would combine my love of training dogs with my passion for supporting people with disabilities to increase their independence. I read a book as a teenager about a guide dog and how life-changing they could be, and it sparked a passion in me which has remained ever since.
For me, the best part of my job is seeing the partners (which is what we call our clients) at different stages – from applying for a dog, then meeting with them afterwards – and seeing the huge differences in their confidence and happiness. I’m always amazed that people actually physically look different and healthier – and often even look younger!
I remember working with a partner a few years ago who used to be incredibly active and hike up mountains, and then she developed MS. We matched her with an assistance dog and it just gave her a new lease of life! She had so many adventures and even made it up Ben Nevis in a specially adapted wheelchair with a small support team, an incredible achievement and shows the sort of confidence and independence having a dog can inspire. Those transformations we constantly see are what makes the charity so special. It goes beyond what people expect when they first get a dog, and reaches into every corner of their lives.”