Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Canine life-lines: when a dog can be just the medicine no doctor can prescribe

When we had our Dogs Trust Honours back in February, Jessica Muckelt's dog Shadow was nominated as a Hero dog. Although he didn't win, he and Jess were the lucky recipients of a helicopter flight thanks to our Prize Draw. As they're unable to take the flight, they've very generously put it up for auction on eBay, where you can bid now knowing that all proceeds will come to Dogs Trust.

It got me thinking about Hero dogs, and how sometimes saving a life is different from the classic image of pulling someone from a burning building.

For example, behind Jess's generosity is a wonderful story that shows just how powerful the love of a pet can be. These days she says:

"I've always called Shadow my Lifeline. Without him I know I would not still be alive."

This strength of feeling derives from the fact that Shadow has become Jess's best friend, helping her to deal with the fact that she has Asperger's Syndrome combined with depression and the urge to self harm.

A talented musician, Jess struggled with suicidal thoughts until Shadow came along thanks to the suggestion of her carer, Jane Appleton, a former PAT (Pets As Therapy) trainer. When the quiet pup with damaged paws and conjunctivitis first met Jess at our Kenilworth Rehoming Centre, he put his paw in her lap and bonded with her instantly. When she tried to self-harm, the smell of her blood made him depressed for weeks, prompting Jess to find the strength in herself to stop so as not to affect him badly.

"I just couldn't put him through that again. I need Shadow and Shadow needs me."

As Jess tended to Shadow's injuries and, guided by Jane, trained him until he became the calm and confident dog he now is, Shadow became a crucial support to her, helping her through the bad days and nights and giving her a focus outside of herself. She is now so confident that she works as a dog training assistant with Jane.

Jess is not the only one lucky enough to have benefitted from the amazing comfort of a four-legged friend.

Ben, a 15-year-old boy who seemed to descend into lethargy, giving up PE lessons first and then eventually all school, was suffering from a crippling lack of confidence.

His mother turned to the family support worker who contacted Dogs Trust Glasgow to set up a volunteer placement at the centre, in the hope of giving Ben a sense of purpose. It worked! Ben now rises at 6am to cycle six miles to the centre and his confidence has improved dramatically. He's even stopped hiding under hooded tops so as to inspire trust in his furry charges.

Susie* also found her salvation in a precious pet. An abusive childhood had left her deeply depressed and suicidal; reaching to South West Rape Crisis in Scotland, she was offered a crucial lifeline and able to live in her own home. However, something was still missing until she contacted Emma Speers at Dogs Trust in South West Scotland. Sensitive to Susie's needs, Emma suggested Matilda, an older dog. She prepared a daily schedule for Susie and Matilda to follow, and a year later Susie no longer self-harms and leaves the house daily to walk her beloved forever friend. She has even got a part-time job mixing with people she doesn't know well, which would have been impossible in the past.

Next time you cast an eye over your family pet, whose love you might take for granted, take a minute to remember the love and companionship they offer you so freely. Somewhere out there, another dog could just be saving someone's life.

*Name changed to protect identity.
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