High Sheriff of West Sussex, Dr Tim Fooks, learns how Canine Partners transform lives

The High Sheriff of West Sussex, Dr Tim Fooks, in his weekly briefing, meets people who have benefited from Canine Partners and finds out how the dogs have transformed their lives.
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Recently I have had the pleasure to be introduced to two very special West Sussex couples, Michelle and Lester, and Tabby and Lindy. Both Michelle and Tabby are wheelchair-bound due to complex medical conditions but, for both, their lives were transformed when Lester and Lindy become their respective Canine Partners assistance dogs.

Canine Partners is a West Sussex-based charity which was founded 31 years ago. It provides assistance dogs trained to meet the needs of individuals with even the most complex physical disabilities. It currently helps adults aged 18 and over, both civilians and former service personnel, who have a physical disability or condition that affects their daily life and limits their independence.

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Canine Partner dogs are carefully matched to an applicants’ needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging. They are trained to help with everyday tasks such as opening and closing doors, unloading the washing machine, picking up dropped items, pressing buttons and switches and fetching help in an emergency. They can even help people to get undressed and remove a card from an ATM.

Michelle Cole and LesterMichelle Cole and Lester
Michelle Cole and Lester

When I met both Michelle and Tabby on separate zoom calls, it was clear that both felt incredibly fortunate to have been accepted on to the charity’s programme, even though this required a 12-18 month wait. And, although both applied thinking they might not be severely affected enough to qualify, neither of them thinks they would now be able to cope without the assistance their dogs provide.

Michelle used to be a paediatric nurse until multiple sclerosis (MS) made it impossible for her to work. MS is caused by an inflammatory condition of the nervous system which comes and goes unpredictably. Over time, the condition tends to progress and Michelle now requires a wheelchair to get around. However, with the help of Lester, she remains independent in her own home.

This last year has been an emotionally draining time for Michelle, not just because of Covid, but, with Lester’s support, she has never felt lonely and has coped with the prolonged periods of shielding quite well.

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Michelle describes Lester as her ‘little side-kick’. He helps her with dressing, opening doors and washing clothes but he also seems to instinctively know how to read Michelle’s mood and will stay close when she is feeling vulnerable.

Tabby and her Canine Partner dog LindyTabby and her Canine Partner dog Lindy
Tabby and her Canine Partner dog Lindy

Before Lester arrived, Michelle described her world as ‘small’ but now it has opened up again.

As she said: “Lester first saved my life, then gave me a life and I would not be able to be me without him.”

Tabby’s experience is equally moving. A talented athlete and sports woman until she was 15, Tabby became rapidly incapacitated by a form of extreme joint hypermobility known as Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS). This caused her joints to become unstable, resulting in daily dislocations, muscle and general body pains, all of which understandably affected her mental health.

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When Lindy arrived, five years ago, Tabby was one of the youngest people to receive a Canine Partner. However, the impact was dramatic. Now Tabby could dress, wash and flush the toilet without dislocating her shoulders or her hips.

As a result, her mental health improved and this has allowed her family to leave her knowing that she still feels safe.

Lindy is always keen to learn new skills and Tabby is now an acknowledged expert at training her. This keeps strengthening the wonderfully strong bond between them.

As Tabby says: “Lindy is now part of me. She is my motivation, my lifeline and my forever companion.”

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As I have learned from Tabby and Michelle, the work of Canine Partners transforms the lives of not just the human partners, but all those around them as well. It works to the highest standards and we are fortunate that its home is in our county.

The pandemic has prevented Canine Partners from being able to accept new applications but the charity hopes this will change later this year. For more information or to learn how you can support the charity please go to their website at caninepartners.org.uk

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