Written by Cara Reynolds, Big Lottery Fund
Every dog has his day and fab five – Honey, Holly, Tilly, Bailey and Jack – had theirs at a special passing out ceremony in Belfast recently.
The pets are the first to graduate in Northern Ireland as Assistance Dogs and are already helping their owners face challenges including spinal injuries, degenerative conditions and autism.
Emotionally intuitive, perpetually patient and with a sixth sense that even doctors don’t understand, these pets have been expertly trained through Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI), thanks to support from Big Lottery Fund’s Awards for All programme.
The event, which took place in Disability Action in Belfast, was organised by Assistance Dogs NI.
“Imagine what it’s like to hear your child’s voice for the first time,” said Shirley White, a board member of ADNI. “When the mum of an autistic child who had very little speech heard him talk to the dog for the first time, she just burst into tears.
“We don’t exactly understand what these dogs are doing or how they do it, but they are changing lives.”
It was a fantastic afternoon out, and I got to see at first-hand what a difference these dogs make to their owners. Among the many people at the event was Elizabeth Black, founder member of Assistance Dogs NI, who was accompanied by her adorable canine assistant Barnaby, a cavalier spaniel (and her right hand man!).
Others – like the McGurks from Dromara, Co Down – were the proud owners of the new graduates. Their family now includes Bailey who is 13-year-old Beth’s new best friend.
“Beth is the only person in Northern Ireland to have her particular degenerative condition and life just isn’t very nice some days,” said mum Sharon.
“There are mornings she wakens, fed-up with what lies ahead but Bailey is intuitive and seems to understand and comes to nuzzle her.
“Because Beth is in a wheelchair, he’s been trained to pick things up, open doors and bark if she is in distress. He has brought such joy to our home.”
Holly is helping Patrick McDonnell (26), from Cullyhanna, Co Armagh, enjoy life again. Spinal injuries left this active young man in a wheelchair two years ago.
“I didn’t go out much. When I did, people tended to see the wheelchair and not me. Now, with Holly, it’s all about her and not the chair. She’s given me back independence,” he said.
The pups are all fostered until they’re fully trained, and many of the foster families were there to see the pups they had trained graduate.
In East Belfast Tilly has swapped foster family the O’Neills for life with the Byrnes.
“We had Tilly for 14 months. She and our Chihuahua Cesar were firm friends. It’s hard to let them go but worth it when you see the difference they make,” said foster mum Mary O’Neill.
Now this talented Lab is transforming life for seven-year-old Ellis Byrne.
“Ellis doesn’t have much speech, but Tilly is developing his vocabulary as he learns the new commands words. It would break your heart to hear him talk to her,” said mum Miranda.
It was a very happy occasion and there were lots of other ‘students’ there as well. Some were just puppies going through the first stages of training and some others were almost ready to face their final exams.
And it has to be said, Honey, Holly, Tilly, Bailey and Jack were some of the best behaved students I have ever seen.
The challenge now is to ensure that the bright yellow jackets of the Assistance Dogs are as widely recognised as possible.
“This graduation ceremony is the culmination of seven years work. This has been a dream come true for everyone involved,” said Geraldine McGaughey, ADNI board member.
“Hopefully, though, it’s just the beginning.”