So I wanted to do a little update on Willow for you all because the last post I did about Willow was just over 18 months ago and at that time it was just about introducing who she was and the already amazing impact she’d made on my life. But this is a very special update because a lot has changed since then and in this blog I want to explain all of that (along with some Willow photo/video spam along the way of course! But it’ll be cute I promise!)
So a little bit of background for those who don’t know Willow she is a Tibetan Terrier x Bichon Frise, two and a half years old and I can now say is a working dog because since one month ago she is now officially my fully registered Assistance Dog. She is with the amazing charity Dog A.I.D. https://dogaid.org.uk/ who help owners with physical disabilities train their own pet dogs to become assistance dogs with the help of a volunteer trainer, three levels, three assessments to pass and the charities support throughout.
So that’s we started and now we’re qualified but how did we get there?
Well short answer: Hard work, patience, persistence and never giving up even when there’s walls there is always a way round just don’t give in (unless there’s a medical reason or the dog is getting anxious/not right to be a working dog). It is so worth it and it is so rewarding once they get it and have that lightbulb moment and yes there is ups and downs and we’ve had our fair share of them but the ups are incredible and make it all worthwhile and the downs you overcome, try again and find a way through and the mistakes are what help us learn and get better as well as having the best cuddles and kisses from your canine friend to make you feel better.
I’ve always been training with Willow ever since I first got her, you start with basic training and obedience and I did just that. I went to the normal puppy classes (as we got Willow at 4 months old) in my local town hall and once she passed that I started beginner obedience classes and slowly over the course of the months moved up to intermediate and finally advance. I loved having a purpose in training Willow and the confidence it gave me both when training and when out and about. Out on my own people would hardly say a word to me, some even avoided me and all because I was in a wheelchair? Because they could see a line coming out my arm or chest and a tube out my stomach? Because I was different? Exactly, I was different. I wasn’t normal, but who is normal? What is normal? Fact: Normal doesn’t exist. But because of all of this going out was difficult both in the practical sense of managing everything physically and then on top of that coping with everything emotionally both myself and others reactions. But then Willow came into my life and going out was exciting because Willow was by my side! Walking her was and is the highlight of my day and training gave me a new found focus and purpose in life that I didn’t have before and at the end of it all who can resist those gorgeous eyes and the late night/early morning/whenever you need them cuddles and unconditional love our pets, assistance dogs or not, bring us. When I’m out with Willow now people talk to me more, they see Willow and me and then the chair. It gives me back a zest for a life I didn’t have before and an icebreaker helping to put others around me at ease. It’s amazing what just one dog can do.
Back with my local training, I kept up the obedience classes (and agility for fun) who were run by Laura Ward one of the amazing trainers there. I didn’t actually get Willow on the intention of becoming my assistance dog, she was my pet first, it was only through a close friend I found out about Dog A.I.D. and because of the nature of Dog Aid, helping to train your own pet dogs, no matter the breed (if they have the right temperament) I for the first time thought maybe this could be possible? Maybe Willow could be that dog and change my life not just emotionally but practically too? I applied to Dog A.I.D. at the end of 2016 but unfortunately there was no trainers in my area at the time so I was kept on their books and in the mean time I put all my efforts into training what I could until I could be with them officially and that amazing day then came in April 2018. This is all became possible because of one amazing lady though and that’s my local trainer Laura, she became a good friend over the two years getting to know Willow and I and my dream of training Willow to become my assistance dog until one day she said ‘Well isn’t there anything I could do? Could I help train you both?’ and the answer to that was yes she could and she went on to do just that and apply to become a volunteer trainer with Dog A.I.D.
Our training officially began in April after all the paperwork had been done but we had been working together for the past 12 months so we had made a lot of progress on the levels without even realising! Because of that I actually passed Level 1 within the first two weeks which was madness but incredible all at the same time! Level 1 is all about making sure your dog is exposed to all they can be within environments, people, distractions and a basic level of obedience. It seemed all those long hours, three or four 1-1’s (within the whole year) and many, many hours of patience, repetition and practice was paying off! Getting that first certificate was such a proud moment and really gave the confidence to say to myself we can actually do this! Level 2 came next which is more advanced ‘assistance level’ obedience. I had a training session with Laura every 4 – 6 weeks where we would practice certain tasks and behaviours as well as going out and about practising the high level of standard needed in their public behaviour, again Willow had already been practising this with myself and mum doing ‘café training’ as we’d call it, learning to settle in various different environments, not be distracted and keep focused on me.
There is a lot to cover in Level 2 but some examples are: Willow being able to ignore food refusal from the hand, the floor and when dropped as well as settling calmly in different environments she’s put in, being able to do a sit, stay and down in a shop or public place and me moving away from her/out of view (off lead) whilst there is noise, people and distractions going on around her. As well as a good recall, an emergency stop and the above but in a park/wooded area. There is loads more I haven’t covered but that is just some of the examples to give you an idea. My assessment for Level 2 was in June and I was so nervous I remember having butterflies for days before but Kirsten our assessor (a Dog A.I.D. assessor) was amazing and really put both me and Willow at ease. We firstly did the paperwork at home, then went to the park and then to the shops and lastly the café, along the way assessing each compartment needed for Level 2 at the various different locations. By the end I was still so nervous but when Kirsten finished writing and looked up to say I’d passed with flying colours I was jumping for joy (metaphorically obviously!) She went on to say I was not that far away from doing my Level 3 at all which was just the icing on the cake! Level 3 is showing the high standard of public behaviour needed and demonstrating the three tasks your dog will help you with too.
Willow’s tasks are so varied from opening and closing doors in my flat to fetching the post to helping me get undressed and then taking the washing out. She is always on hand to pick up anything I drop when in my chair and she knows specific items like ‘find medicines, find drink, find phone and can fetch these from anywhere in the flat no matter where I’ve left them last. We’ve also trained her to fetch my alarm when I collapse and find help if I’m unconscious.
Fast forward three months later September 10th and it was my Level 3 assessment day, I was beyond nervous for this one I was hardly talking, which anyone who knows me well will know that means I must be really bricking it inside! Which I was but only because it meant so, so much to me. Also to explain a little between passing Level 2 and September 10th Level 3 I only actually had one training session with Laura as in the middle of July I went into hospital (long story and long admission to explain in this particular blog) and I didn’t actually come out until the 8th September (yes two days before I know!) But during those two months in hospital Laura my trainer visited me having our own mini sessions just from the bedside and so did Willow visit! Where actually she did more training and had more exposure to different environments, people and experiences than if we were just at home, got to find the silver linings somewhere! She really did make me proud though, from the ward to ICU (she was allowed in by my consultant under special arrangements as even fully trained assistance dogs aren’t by law allowed into ICU or surgical indefinitely) But being in and around the hospital she was so calm, well behaved and helped not only me but so many other patients, relatives and staff throughout my two months there. I was honestly bursting with pride at times especially in ICU as it was extremely testing in there, we joked it was it’s own Level 3 assessment and more as it really was!
But one proud dog mum I was and so determined not to miss the actual assessment my amazing team helped me to get out for the 10th and with Laura’s support I made it and of course I then went on to pass! Well we did, Willow and I! I can’t explain the excitement I felt inside when I saw Kirsten, who was my assessor again, pull out the certificate and say the words ‘you’ve passed, you’ve done it you are now officially a fully qualified team’ OH MY GOSH! I was BURSTING WITH HAPPINESS! I instantly let out a little scream of excitement and went to cuddle Willow so tightly, I don’t think she had much clue why mum was so ecstatic but I had never felt so proud of both her and myself, how far we’d come, all the hard work, the waiting, the hoping and praying I’d just get with Dog A.I.D. let alone pass all three levels in less than six months? But we had done it and we are now officially qualified! I was over the moon and on cloud nine and I stayed that way for a good few days as when you’re fighting illnesses like mine those moments are ones you cherish and remember forever and this certainly was one of those, it was a dream, a dream come true and an achievement I really can be proud of!
I’m so grateful to Dog A.I.D. and my trainer Laura Ward as without them I wouldn’t be where I am today, they’ve given me a new lease of life and best of all I’m doing it with my best friend by my side. Willow is everything to me and although I can’t change my illness or what the future holds I know it’ll be okay as whatever happens Willow is with me and together we’re an unstoppable team. There is so many adventures and new experiences we are going to do together and I cannot wait! For now she’s doing what she does best, snuggling up to next to me whilst I finish this blog and finish my treatment as I’m back in hospital once again. My best friend, my partner in crime, my amazing little lifeline.