The Sussex charity training dogs to assist people with disabilities
14:56 09 February 2017
The Sussex-based charity Canine Partners trains dogs to assist disabled people. Hazel Sillver meets Sally Whitney and her dog Ethan to find out more
My middle-aged Labrador is able (when he’s in the mood) to obey basic commands: “come here”, “sit”, “stay”, and so on. He understands “hoover!” (which means come and eat what I’ve dropped on the floor), and “corner!” (lie down because we’re going around a sharp bend). But that’s as impressive as it gets.
He is put to great shame by the two-year-old black Labrador-Golden Retriever cross in front of me, who is performing a series of tasks for his partner Sally Whitney. I am in Brighton to meet them both at Sally’s flat, and Ethan – who is a Canine Partners assistance dog – is demonstrating some of his skills.
At her command he opens a drawer, fetches an item she requests, gives it to her, and then closes the drawer. When she asks, he opens the back door, goes to the toilet in a specific area, returns inside, and shuts the door. He darts off when she requests her phone (which is in another room), and soon returns with it in his mouth. And – most impressive of all – when Sally pretends to have a seizure, he instantly looks alarmed and bounds off at speed to fetch her carer.
“Having Ethan has transformed my life,” says the affable Sally, who is 29, and suffers from several autoimmune conditions and connective tissue disorders, which leave her disabled. “I did a lot less around the home, and was rarely able to go out before he came into my life. I didn’t want to constantly ask other people to fetch me things, pick things up, and so on. Now Ethan is ever ready to do all that for me!”
Cheerful, intelligent, and enthusiastic, the very last thing you notice about Sally is her wheelchair. But, decorated with accessories in her favourite colour, pink, it has been her means of moving around since her health worsened in 2013. Having been struck down with a mysterious illness at the age of 17, she was eventually diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Lupus, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The latter is a connective tissue disorder syndrome, which can create (amongst other symptoms and disorders) hypermobility, unstable joints that dislocate easily, dizziness, and extreme fatigue, all due to defective collagen, which can affect all organs. “One aspect of the illness means that my blood vessels stretch, but don’t recoil, so I pass out a lot and have seizures,” explains Sally.
Intent on becoming a doctor, she tried to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 2005, and then – after an eight-month period in hospital – tried again at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in 2009. “Every time I tried, the illness overwhelmed me,” she says, “I kept ending up in hospital unable to study.”
She began a degree in Cognitive Science and Philosophy at the University of Sussex. But, while living with friends in a student flat, she endured episodes of shaking and passing out; and found that basic tasks, such as laundry, were exhausting. “Around that time my cousin saw a Canine Partners stand in Brighton, and suggested I apply for an assistance dog,” recalls Sally. “I did, and they asked me to go for an assessment.”
The Canine Partners charity, which is based in Midhurst, trains dogs to assist disabled people with everyday tasks. If you’ve seen a dog in a purple coat alongside somebody in a wheelchair then you’ve seen a Canine Partners dog in action. Perhaps they were putting food into the shopping basket in the supermarket, or passing their partner’s wallet to the cashier – two of the many tasks they are trained to carry out. Ethan is even able to use Sally’s contactless credit card!
After another bout of ill health, which left her on life support, Sally recovered and was finally able to go for her assessment at Canine Partners HQ in 2014.
“I worked with different dogs to learn how to give commands, and to find out if I’d be a suitable candidate to be given a dog,” she recalls. “I was thrilled and surprised to find out that several Canine Partners dogs had been paired with Ehlers-Danlos sufferers because they’re fairly mobile, and communicate well. So although the condition is rare and extreme, there was suddenly a positive to it – it meant that I might able to have an assistance dog!”
Ethan’s mum – a guide dog – gave birth to him on Christmas Day 2014 in Herefordshire. He became a Canine Partners puppy when he was eight weeks old because he was so good at problem-solving. After learning basic skills with his puppy parent Julie, he was paired up with one of Canine Partners’ trainers, Els, who taught him advanced skills, such as opening doors.
“Being paired with a dog is a bit like using a dating service,” laughs Sally. “They ask what sort of skills and qualities you’re looking for in a dog, and then match you up. It’s funny because I asked for a calm dog, since I get so over-excited, but Ethan is just as enthusiastic and excitable as me! We’re similar in so many ways!”
Ethan was matched with her in February 2015. Despite concerns that the long training days required to become Ethan’s partner would be too much, Canine Partners made allowances so that it could happen in short bouts. Els gave Sally the skills to teach Ethan new commands, and the two were officially united a few months later.
“His presence means that I can be relatively independent,” says Sally. “For example, I now shower alone – Ethan picks up the shower gel if I drop it, and brings the towel. Before he was around, I’d have to have a carer in the bathroom. I now go to the cafe or the supermarket and feel safe and confident with him at my side. But, more than that, he makes me feel special, and loved.”
The two are now inseparable – Ethan even accompanied Sally on her first date with her boyfriend. “That was the acid test,” laughs Sally. “If Ed didn’t like Ethan, he might have got the thumbs down!
“Luckily, he loved him.”
After a recent respiratory arrest, Sally awoke in intensive care covered in tubes, and feeling vulnerable, but when Ethan was allowed into her hospital room she immediately felt reassured. “Of course my friends, family, and boyfriend care, but the love that comes from Ethan is different,” says Sally, as she strokes Ethan who is curled up on her lap. “Also his presence means that my illness is not the focus of my life, or other people’s view of my life – and that’s wonderful! Of course I wish I wasn’t ill, but if there’s a positive from it, it’s having Ethan. He has changed everything for the better. He’s my partner in crime. He has no judgment for me – only constant love.”
The Canine Partners Charity
This wonderful Sussex-based charity trains dogs to assist people with disabilities, in order to give them more independence, confidence and companionship. Training and monitoring a dog such as Ethan costs £20,000, which is funded solely by donations since the charity doesn’t receive government funding.
More than 1.2 million people in the UK use a wheelchair, and a significant number would benefit from a canine partner. “Seeing the difference our dogs make to the disabled people with whom we match them is the reason I love my job,” says Canine Partners CEO Andy Cook.
“It’s a complete transformation. People gain so much more independence because of the tasks the dogs perform.
“They have a faithful trained companion by their side, and they go through the ups and downs of life together.”
Founded in 1990 in Hampshire, the charity now has centres in West Sussex and Leicestershire, and has provided hundreds of assistance dogs for people suffering from a variety of disabilities and conditions, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and spinal injuries.