This is my dog Lexi.
Lexi is a 2 and a half year old girl who is a Labrador X Golden Retriever and she has been living with me now for just over a year.
She was trained by a charity called Canine Partners, who aim to transform the lives of disabled people through partnership with their assistance dogs. The charity was created in 1990 and (as of 2019) they currently have 429 partnerships across the UK.
Since Lexi came into my life, she has helped me so much. As she is a working dog, I have to make sure I take her out for a walk for at least an hour a day. This encourages me to get out of the house and I get to meet lots of new people. Lexi has also been trained to do lots of different tasks for me. They normally involve pushing something, picking up items or pulling/tugging something. For example, Lexi can pull and push doors open and closed, pick up things like my keys or any other small object I may accidently drop on the floor, and bring it to me; and she can tug the sleeves of my coat to help me take my coat off.
Lexi’s help is invaluable to me. Having her by my side to help with small tasks like that means I am able to go out and also be at home independently without having to worry about dropping things and not being able to get them without asking for help, which can be an embarrassing and awkward thing to have to do. Being with Lexi also gives me more self confidence. I used to be really worried when I was out on my own that people would stare at me, or I would be an annoyance because of my disability and needing to get around in my wheelchair. But now I have Lexi to focus on, I don’t think about my own anxieties as much because I know I’m responsible for her, and seeing her look at me with her tail wagging and her face smiling, just makes me feel happier about myself, as I know that if Lexi is happy I must be doing something right after all!
Its often said that it takes a village to raise a child; well it also takes a whole team of dedicated people from across the UK to raise and train an assistance dog! Without the support of all these lovely people, many of whom give their time for free, me and Lexi wouldn’t be where we are today.
Lexi’s early stages of training was carried out by volunteer Puppy Parents with the guidance of puppy trainers from Canine Partners. Puppies in training are often allowed out and about wearing their jackets to get them used to a variety of places they might visit later in their working life. When Lexi was around a year old her Puppy Parents had the emotional task of handing her over to the Advanced Training Team who worked with Lexi to see if she had the ability to be a Canine Partner and taught her some of the essential skills she would need as an assistance dog, such as walking besides a wheelchair and fetching a dropped item. I was on the waiting list for a Canine Partner for about a year before I got matched with Lexi and it is a very long process. Once I had met Lexi and decided that she was the dog for me, her Advanced Trainer would have spent a bit more time training Lexi to do a couple of tasks that I specifically wanted help with, and then I spent 2 weeks at the Midlands Training Centre learning how to look after Lexi, bond with her and learn how to continue her training once we went home.
Throughout the lifetime of a Canine Partner, it can cost £20,000 to train and support the dog in addition to later training and supporting its owner. It is really important that during our working life together, the training and tasks remain consistent, relaxed and enjoyable for Lexi so that she can keep doing her work for as long as possible.
There are a lot of assumptions people make about assistance dogs, and I also had assumptions which only changed when I made the commitment to have a Canine Partner.
One of the main traps people fall in to is the assumption that all assistance dogs are fully trained the moment they are passed onto their new owner and leave the training centre and therefore they should be able to perform any task asked of them whilst being on their best behaviour at all times. In my experience, this is certainly not the case. Once I was partnered with Lexi it took a lot of effort from me to not only develop a bond with her, but to continue with the training that has already been carried out in situations and environments that are completely new to her. In regards to the dogs trained by Canine Partners, they are only initially trained to do the tasks that’ll be easiest for the dog to learn or of immediate help to the Partner. Opening and closing doors and picking specific items off the floor, like my keys, were things that I needed the most support with from Lexi, and so that is what she was initially taught to do, in addition to the typical staples of dog training like ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and ‘come here’. I have many people ask me ‘Can she put things in the washing machine for you?’ as it is something that Canine Partners are well known to have trained dogs to do. However, tasks like this may not be required by every person and also they have many smaller elements to it such as teaching a dog to take something away from you rather than bring it to you, so it can take a lot more time and patience for a dog to learn this task.
As an assistance dog, Lexi has the legal right to be by my side in places where pet dogs are usually not allowed to be – supermarkets, hospitals, doctors surgeries, cinemas, anywhere I need her support, Lexi can be there. Unsurprisingly, due to this luxury and the fact that she is just completely adorable (!), everywhere I go people just seem to be drawn towards Lexi like a magnet! This can get frustrating sometimes, even though you know the general public mean well, but there are times when (like everyone) we might be in a rush to get somewhere and we don’t always have the time to introduce ourselves (well, mainly Lexi!) to everyone we meet.
The importance of not distracting an assistance dog is something I will discuss in a later post as I personally feel a lot of people don’t understand why distracting an assistance dog can be particularly testing and harmful for our working partnership.
Lexi means the world to me and I’m sure I’ll be posting a lot more about her in the coming weeks and months.
N.B: The views expressed in this post are my own and aren’t neccessarily the opinions of Canine Partners