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The "thinking dog" that saved my life

Orca is a golden retriever which can take meat out of the freezer, deliver a letter and distinguish between a land line and a mobile phone. He also rescued his owner when she
came to grief in a wheelchair accident. Serrna Allott reports

At about 9am on a crisp spring morning, Cheryl Smith hauled herself on to her electric wheelchair and set out for a walk with her assistance dog, Orca, a golden retriever. She was going to a barbecue later that day and she wanted to be sure that Orca, who had been with her only five weeks, was too tired even to sniff at a sausage. "I was on a bridle path," says Smith, 25, "and he was off the lead, running free, when I suddenly hit something - a rock or a stone - which turned my front wheel and sent me careering down a bank. I dropped about 12ft into a ditch filled with water."

Smith, who has just completed a Masters in green chemistry at York University and will start a PGCE in September, suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy syndrome, a neurological condition characterised by constant pain and the loss of effective movement in muscles and joints. She has been unable to walk without crutches since the age of 14. Trapped beneath her chair (which weighs 2971b but, miraculously, was wedged so that it did not crush her), she knew that Orca was her only hope of rescue. "I could hear him crying at the top of the ditch, wanting to come down, and I was shouting at him, `No, no, go and get help!"

It took her five minutes to persuade him to go, and what felt like an hour later he was back, minus his collar and with his distinctive purple jacket - denoting him as a working dog trained by the charity Canine Partners for Independence (CPI) - all askew. "I thought, `Oh no, he's just been playing,' but I asked him to go again and this time he didn't need any convincing." By the time Orca returned again two hours later, Smith was so cold that she was drifting in and out of sleep. "I heard a voice calling, `Hello, has anyone lost a dog?' And I shouted, `I'm in the ditch."' At hospital Smith was found to be suffering from nothing worse than mild hypothermia. Back at home she learnt that on his first attempt to get help, Orca had met a man who unwittingly tried to lead him further away from Smith, hence the slipped collar. "He was so pleased to see me when I got home from hospital," she says, "and I thought, `That's it mate, it's you and me now. We're a team."'

Orca is not the only assistance dog to have saved his owner's life. When Gulf War veteran Allen Parton was knocked out of his wheelchair by a reversing car, his canine partner - a golden labrador called Endal - pushed him into the recovery position, draped a blanket over him and nudged his mobile phone close to his face before going to find help. "They are trained to be thinking dogs, persistent until they get an outcome," Toni Denyer, the director of fundraising and marketing for CPI, says. The charity was founded in 1991 after years of research into dog assistance programmes for the deaf. Since then, 246 puppies have been through the system. Demand far outstrips supply. Last year the CPI received applications from 200 people, but there are only 42 dogs going through the training programme at any one time. Each of these dogs will cost the charity £9,850 before it is ready to be placed. (This includes the purchase price of up to £700 per dog.)

Thirty of the current trainees are with "puppy parents", families who house them from the age of eight weeks. There they are house-trained and socialised, taught basic commands and brought for weekly training, either to the charity's headquarters in Midhurst, West Sussex, or to one of its satellites in Hull, East Sussex or Southampton. When they are ready, at about 14 months, the dogs are moved into kennels to begin formal training. This takes eight hours a day over three to six months, although teaching sessions are broken into three-minute chunks. The training begins by "proofing" the commands already learnt. "A dog who knows how to stop and come back on his own will learn how to do it when in a group of excited dogs surrounded by pheasants," Lucy Wiles, the training team manager, explains. The dogs learn 103 commands, including "take off the jacket", which means unzip it and pull both sleeves off; "help me", which means brace to act as a support for wheelchair transfer, and "foot", which means lift the owner's foot and put it on a wheelchair footplate. Training is heavily reward-based and the dogs will rely on rewards - either vocal or in the form of tit-bits - all their lives. "One of our five trainers used to be an army dog handler, and I'm always telling her to sound more encouraging when she talks to the dogs," says Wiles. "They are not machines, they can't be made to do anything - if you're in a wheelchair and your dog doesn't come back, what are you going to do about it? They have to want to work."

Seventy five per cent of the dogs complete their training, but the remainder fail for health or behavioural reasons: they might be too active or lack confidence. "We try to use the failed dogs. Some are suitable for sniffer work, some we put with disabled children. We don't give dogs as canine partners to under-18s, partly because they need to be old enough to take responsibility for the dog and partly because the child's parents can feel displaced by what the dog does," says Wendy Lawrence, the partnership administrator of CPI. Once each successful dog has been partnered it will be taught new commands to meet its owner's individual needs. These might include "massaging" painful areas by applying pressure, helping to make a bed, or inserting a bank card and retrieving the notes from a cashpoint. "We ask people to teach their dog a new command every six months to keep their interest up," Wiles says. There are currently 78 people on CPI's waiting list. "We are fairly blunt when they first come," Wiles says. "We ask why they want the dog, are they capable of looking after it, exercising it; some people underestimate the effect of their disability. We need to know that they could act quickly enough to stop a dog eating rat poison, for instance." And then Wiles and her team watch for a particular interaction between dog and human.

"Orca was dead miserable when I first saw him; his trainer called him Eeyore," says Smith. "All the other dogs were on their mats, all bouncy, `Pat me! Pat me!' Orca was more `OK, you can pat me if you like.' But once I started paying attention to him he perked up and kept looking at his trainer as if to say, `Am I doing all right?"' The final part of training involves both dog and owner and lasts two weeks, covering everything from grooming the dog to getting in and out of lifts safely. It is gruelling not just for the soon-to-be owner, but also for the trainers and the dogs they have worked with so intensively. "We have to withdraw from the dogs completely so they learn to work for someone new," says Wiles. "It tends to make them very depressed for a couple of days, but it does make them bond with their new partners."

The day I visited the Midhurst centre, Wendy Brown, 47, who broke her back and neck when she was 17, was completing her individual training. She was watching a video of herself shopping in the local supermarket with Wexford, a golden retriever. He struggled with a tin of tuna, but successfully picked it off a shelf and dropped it into her basket. "There is so much to learn that it has been exhausting, but he was much better today, much more focused on me," she comments. "When I first came, the hardest thing was giving the instructions with enough conviction. I couldn't really believe he was going to do the things he does." Brown, an accounting technician, will be taking Wexford to work with her. "The health and safety officer was a bit concerned but the company has no choice. I can't wait to take Wexford home now - even though I'm so scared something will happen to him that I'd like to put him in a padded cell."

The fact that having a canine partner is a two-way responsibility was what attracted Cheryl Smith to the charity. "I said, `I don't want a slave, I envisage something like a marriage."' And this is what it sounds like when she talks about Orca. She describes coming home from the university and having Orca remove her shoes before putting a video in the machine, passing her the remote control and fetching a Diet Coke from the fridge. She explains that she can't take him to the cinema because the surround-sound is so realistic that effects such as thunderstorms terrify him. "And I can't console him because then he thinks it's all right to behave like an idiot." She looks down at Orca dozing beside her with undisguised devotion. "He just loves pleasing me. And he's been so good for my spirits. How could you be depressed with him around? If I'm ever sad he'll put his chin on my lap, or get one of his toys and start fooling around."

Smith lives in university accommodation, sharing a house with another student, "just in case I fall and break my neck. Orca could open the door to go and get help but he couldn't unlock it." Still, she is determinedly independent and irritated by those who assume Orca makes her life possible. "I could take the washing out of the machine before I had him, it just used to take me 45 minutes. Now he takes it out bit by bit and hands me the things to hang up, it's much quicker. He needs me as much as I need him: he needs regular grooming and two or three hours of exercise each day. It's not for the faint-hearted."

Much of Orca's work involves fetching things: he can select a matching pair of shoes from a collection in a cupboard; distinguish between a landline and a mobile phone; take a piece of meat out of a deep freezer in the supermarket without puncturing the packaging. He knows 20 or 30 people by name and, assuming they are within reasonable reach, will carry a note to them. He is clearly a "thinking dog": Smith tells me how she dropped a £10 note on the floor in the bank. A man tried to pick it up for her, but Orca put a paw on it and refused to move until the man had backed off. Then he picked it up and passed it to Smith himself.

Smith has to allow more time for trips to the supermarket now because, like all canine partners, Orca attracts so much attention. "You explain the dog is working, you ask the public not to distract it, but people just go, `Oh, I know, I've got a dog at home,' and go on patting it," Wiles says. Although Smith has trained Orca not to respond unless she tells him he can, she is grateful for the interest he arouses. "People usually avert their eyes when they see someone in a wheelchair, mothers train their children not to stare. One little boy saw me and said, `Mummy, what's that?' and she said, `Ssshhh. She'll get you.' But now Orca is with me, it's OK for people to look at me, to admire him. He's such an ice-breaker that I have become much more outgoing. I feel much more integrated into the universe."

CPI: Telephone - 0845-658 0480; email:

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