A pooch ‘on prescription’ leads to the best medicine for Ian
Posted on July 5, 2019
Support Dogs provides independence and quality of life for those affected by autism, epilepsy and physical disability.
Flat-coated Retriever, Raven was recommended by Ian and Margaret’s GP as a means of improving their health and mobility.
Three years later, Raven has just qualified as Ian’s disability assistance dog.
Over the past three years, Raven has been bringing some much-needed light into the lives of Ian and Margaret Chadwick.
Ian, now 65, has suffered from a severe, crippling form of inflammatory arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis for many years. Eighteen years ago, whilst bending over to put a video into a recording machine, he blacked out and woke up in intensive care.
“I’d been suffering from bouts of back pain, and it transpired that my vertebra had collapsed, causing the disc to sever and affect the nerves in my spine,” he recalls. “They told me I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”
At the time of the incident Ian was in his late 40s, he had a very active life, kept hens and bees, and enjoyed climbing, walking and horse-riding.
With supreme effort he managed to learn to walk short distances using crutches but is in near-constant pain which painkillers barely touch.
He has had his right knee replaced and will need the left knee and both hips replacing. Osteoarthritis has fused bones in his ear and affected his hearing, and the drugs have damaged his kidneys. He had to take early retirement on medical grounds from his job at Customs and Excise seven years ago after working for Royal Mail for almost 40 years.
Ian and Margaret, who also has serious health problems that prevent her being active, had always had dogs in their younger years. But three years ago, Margaret’s doctor advised her to get another to encourage them to get out more.
“He jokingly wrote me a pretend “prescription” that said: ‘any dog, any size, any colour.’ So, we got Raven for my birthday from a breeder and she was the pick of the litter.”
The smitten couple soon realised that not only was Raven a beautiful dog, but was also extremely smart, and would be an ideal assistance dog for Ian.
“She is the most intelligent dog I’ve ever owned,” says Ian.
“She is so perceptive and intuitive, and really wants to learn and to please you all the time.”
Ian and Raven were accepted into Support Dogs’ disability dog programme last year, where she flew through training and qualified in May.
Ian struggles to take his socks off and get his arms out of jumpers and shirts, so Raven helps with that, as well as picking things up he has dropped.
Raven also alerts Ian when the smoke alarm goes off, pouncing on him enthusiastically, and has being trained to fetch help if he falls.
But as many Support Dogs’ clients attest, the companionship and close bond between man and dog is just as important as Raven’s practical assistance. Over the years of his illness Ian has suffered from periods of severe depression and Raven has been essential in helping him to deal with his depression.
“She is always there for me when I am low or depressed, and she is such a pick-me-up,” says Ian. “She is always happy to see me, never has an off day, never grumpy or bad tempered. She instinctively knows when I’m struggling and when I’m in pain. She watches me all the time, my little shadow.
When I’m chewing my knuckles with pain, she will plonk her head on my knee as if to say: ‘cheer up dad’. Where I am is a very lonely place to be, and she breaks down those social barriers when I’m out and makes it easier to talk to people.”
Margaret adds, “Raven is so confident, and nothing seems to faze her. She follows Ian everywhere and even goes into the bathroom when he’s in the bath and puts her nose in all the bubbles. Everything is a game to her!”
Ian, Margaret and Raven live in a terraced house in Prestwich, which has been adapted for his needs, and Ian, a practical person, keeps busy doing DIY and painting – which he can do sitting down, and has a new hobby of making leather belts.
“When people tell me ‘you can’t do that’ then I have to do it – you only fail when you stop trying,” he stresses. “My faith is important to me, and this little lady, Raven, is a godsend - she’s brilliant.”
Margaret adds: “Having Raven made such a big difference to Ian and to me. He can go out with her, and I don’t have to go every time. It’s freed me up and given him more independence. And it’s all thanks to Support Dogs.”
We’ll meet again – in only four weeks’ time!
A key stage in the training disability assistance dog programme is when a client’s pet dog comes to live and train away from their owner at the national training centre in Sheffield. For Support Dogs clients, this is one of the hardest parts of the process; having to say goodbye to their pet for a month, even though they know that this is to enable them to really concentrate on their fun and reward-based training to become a life-changing support dog.
In fact, some people even pull out or don’t go ahead with the training because they can’t face the prospect of losing their four-legged support, even temporarily.
But training manager at Support Dogs, Katie Burns is keen to stress that, although it can be a lonely time for the dog-loving client, the four weeks is a vital part of their development from pet pooch to professional canine.
“A lot of new disability assistance dog clients simply don’t like their dog coming to us and staying with a foster carer for four weeks – it’s too much of a wrench, having to give up their pet for a month,” says Katie.
“But although it’s tough, it’s worth it, and we want to put people’s minds at rest, and remind them why we do it. We want a fresh, blank canvas, get rid of any bad habits; it’s crucial to what we do. Then the client comes over and spends a further two weeks reinforcing what the dog has already learnt.”
The Support Dogs’ training team are also keen to stress that none of the dogs-in-training spend a single night in kennels during their absence from home but spend all their evenings and weekends with a foster carer in the city.
Ian and Margaret were worried about the prospect of being without Raven for a month.
“The prospect of Raven being away for so long was terrible,” says Margaret. “When it came to leaving Raven – she had always lived inside so wasn’t used to kennels – I worried that she would forget us.
I knew she was staying with Michelle, a lovely foster carer, as Raven’s trainer Georgina told us. I wasn’t worried that she would be ill-treated, but she didn’t know anyone except us. We thought she might fret – as we were fretting!”
Ian was less emotional than his wife but still missed Raven.
“What really helped were the phone calls we received from Georgina, usually after the weekend telling of how our girl was progressing and hearing Raven’s bark when she heard us on the phone,” he says.
“She was so excited to see us at the end of the training - she hadn’t forgotten us!” adds Margaret.
“It was tough while she was away but worth it. I’d say to anyone thinking of applying to Support Dogs’ disability dog programme to go ahead and do it. Having Raven made such a big difference to Ian and to me.”
Michelle, who lives in Rotherham, and has been a foster carer for Support Dogs for the past year, looked after Raven during her training.
She says: “Ian and Margaret were a bit sad and wary about leaving Raven, but when I met them afterwards, I was able to reassure them that foster carers do this because they love animals, and that they’re going to a good home. All the dogs have their own personality, but Raven was lovely to walk, very well-behaved, and so sweet.
“Although there’s a training element, the dogs have fun with us too.”
It costs around £20,000 to provide and train a support dog. Find out how you can help here: https://www.supportdogs.org.uk/
Sheffield Mutual will be sponsoring Support Dog’s ‘Puppy Parade’ and annual graduation ceremony in November.