Dogs for Good charity fundraiser showcases a community whose lives have been saved by their pet pooches.
By Sophie Cunningham*
With the colours shining through the trees of Heaton Park on a bright Saturday morning, and his best friend by his side, Paul Woodward sits in his chair soaking in the sunshine. Nita, his assistance dog of almost two years waits patiently next to him, ready to serve, completely unaware of how much she has really changed her owner’s life.
Paul, a retired knitting-machine operator, was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) in 1996, a chronic condition which causes stiffness and swelling in joints and motor disability. For Paul, the condition targeted his legs, meaning he could no longer walk or even stand.
“It was awful,” he confessed. “I have always been a very sporty person so I became very depressed.” Before his diagnosis, Paul was an avid cricket player, and enjoyed table tennis too. When he lost the mobility of his legs, he unfortunately could no longer partake in such sports.
However, with Nita’s help, Paul has reclaimed his sporty side and has since travelled the world playing wheelchair basketball and has even played disabled cricket for England and Lancashire.
As he travels through the green landscape with his obedient helper beside him, Paul moves with a smile on his face, alongside the many others that have been helped by the charity Dogs for Good, a national charity that trains puppies into assistance dogs for disabled children and adults, dementia patients and children with autism.
“I come to these events to give something back.” Paul said, as volunteers, puppy trainers and clients have all gathered together to walk, run and wheel themselves along a 5 km route in Manchester’s Heaton Park for the charity’s annual charity dog walk. Founded in 1988, the charity celebrates 30 years of aid this year, having helped almost 900 people across the country so far.
Nita is now fully trained at 4 years old and has been living with Paul and his wife, Linda, in Denton for over 18 months.
Paul, 64, said: “Nita helps me do lots of things like opening and closing doors, picking things up for me that I can’t reach from my chair and she pushes the button on the zebra crossing for me too.”
She even helps take clothes out of the washing machine and dryer.
“We found her with her front half in the dryer this morning trying to get a stray sock out,” said Linda, who works for the Cooperative funeral care service.
But this loyal pup doesn’t just help Paul with physical tasks, she also helps him psychologically and greatly improves his quality of life.
“She gets me active and gets me out talking to people,” he said. “When Linda goes to work, I used to be on my own, but I’m not on my own now.” Nita goes everywhere with Paul, and even has her own seat to watch the Red Devils at Trafford Park.
“The stewards recognise her now,” Paul said. “She even gets a bowl of water at half time.”
Paul has gained heaps of confidence from his pet pooch, attending fundraising events and giving speeches at local schools and centres, such as Barton Grange in Preston, on behalf of Dogs for Good to show his gratitude.
Fundraising events such as the charity dog walk are organised by Alix Davies, the regional fund-raiser for the charity based in Culceth, to spread awareness of Dogs for Good and to create a social opportunity for both clients and trainers – and, of course, the puppies too.
Alix, 30, became involved with Dogs for Good after studying fundraising at Bangor University. After researching the charity and seeing the help they provide, she knew it was perfect for her.
“The puppies give people a new lease of life,” she says. “Not just for the clients but for the socialisers too.”
A ‘socialiser’ is a volunteer that gives the puppies the basic training they need to grow up into a well-rounded dog, ready for specialised training. Duncan Platt decided to become a volunteer after he retired from the Fire Department. He and his wife, Kathryn, train Jade, an 18 month old golden Labrador who is set to become a children’s assistance dog.
The basic training includes commands such as sit, stay and recall – returning to their owner on command. The socialisers also take the puppies to different places, like cafes, shops, and on buses, to make them aware of various environments and desensitise them to public spaces and noise. As the pups get older, the socialisers can specify their training to align with the type of assistance dog they will be.
Kathryn Platt said: “We take Jade to places where a child would go, like parks, leisure centres, and we’ve even taken her to McDonalds!”
The process of training these dogs takes around two years. The puppies start basic training at 8 weeks, and don’t become matched up with clients for another 16-18 months. Although it takes time, the procedure has a 75% success rate meaning 3 times out 4, someone’s life is changed for the better.
Jade is the third dog the couple have socialised, but that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.
“It’s heartbreaking to say goodbye,” confessed Kathryn. “But you give them up quite happily knowing that they’re going to make a difference for someone.”
Dogs for Good has already had 3,822 assistance dog enquiries this year and, despite having opened a northern department only 5 years ago, the charity currently has 76 active partnerships all the way from North Wales, across to Hull, up to the Scottish border.
“The dogs give people back their independence,” said Alix, “they go on to do such wonderful things for people.”
And that is certainly true for Paul and his yellow Labrador, Nita. “Its like having a carer with you all the time,” he said. “I’ll consider going anywhere now.”
The sun is hot for an early October afternoon and a certain little pup has tired out her paws. Paul sits in his chair, his wife on one side, his best friend on the other, purely content with his new lease of life, all thanks to dear old Nita.
This feature was handed in as part of an assignment for which I was graded a first for (78%)!