Following on from the first in this special blog post series on the dogs that change lives, here is the second story from my 2011 dissertation:
Keith Widdowson & Hugo – Dogs for the Disabled
When people think of an assistance dog, their first and usually only thought, is of a guide dog for the blind. But there are, in fact, several types of assistance dog helping not just blind people, all over the UK.
Dogs for the Disabled is a charity that creates life-changing partnerships between people living with disability and specially trained dogs.
These dogs help a person with disabilities to become more independent by performing skills such as picking up items in difficult to reach places, collecting the post and loading the washing machine.
They also become a reason to go out, giving a new found confidence to its owner, and for Keith Widdowson, that is exactly what a black Labrador named Hugo did.
He says: “Seven and a half years ago I would collapse quite frequently and I couldn’t walk without people assuming I was drunk.
“I relied heavily on my cane and would receive verbal abuse from passers-by for walking too slowly, or be accused of being a benefit cheat as I can’t work.
“They would see the cane and automatically assume I was scamming the system. I am disabled, it is just a disability you can’t see.”
Damaging his back in 1985 has led to Keith losing two-and-a-half inches from his spinal column and the inability to walk unassisted. He can also be in danger of falling unconscious when yawning due to an old boxing injury.
“My conditions and the reactions of strangers meant I rarely left the house, with my wife and son unable to leave me unattended. I felt like a burden,” Keith says.
“A friend recommended a stability dog would not only improve my life, but that of my family’s. It was the kick-start I needed.
“I wanted my family to go on holiday and not have to sacrifice travelling abroad because I can’t get insured. I wanted them to feel they could go out and not have to worry about me.”
After sponsoring Dogs for the Disabled for more than ten years, Keith, who lives in Barnsley, applied for a partnership, and in July 2003, was matched to 18-month-old pup, Hugo.
Helen Harper, an instructor at the charity’s Wakefield branch, trains the dogs and matches partnerships.
She says: “When creating a partnership, we tailor the dog’s skills for each individual owner and continue to support them throughout the entirety of the pairing. The dogs work alongside the person and they then work together as a team.
“There are three areas of an assistance dog’s training; obedience, such as sit and stay; push, pull and retrieve; and a safety element where the dog is taught to ‘speak’ to gain attention in a situation.
“These things combine to give the owner a level of independence that they have never had before.”
Over 12 months, Hugo’s training and natural instincts meant he tuned into Keith’s needs, and helped to transform not only the former university lecturer’s life, but also that of his family’s.
He says: “Hugo performed tasks he’d not only been taught to do, but also things he hadn’t, like when I struggle to stand from a sitting position – he would go behind me and not only support me, but nudge me to my feet.
“Having Hugo also meant that my family could go places without me, and if I was out walking with him, people knew I needed help thanks to his yellow jacket, and would part in the street to give me the room I needed.
“He gave me the independence and confidence to go out alone, and I found that having a dog was a social icebreaker,” Keith says. “Passers-by would take the time to talk to me and Hugo, although one person did ask why I had a dog as I wasn’t blind.”
It is a common misconception that dogs are only trained to help the blind, and while Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was the first organisation to use canine assistance, dog training has spread further afield to help people with other types of disabilities.
Dogs for the Disabled have created over 400 partnerships, with more than 200 currently working in England and Wales.
Helen says: “We use Labradors, Golden Retrievers and crosses of the two as these breeds have a willingness to work for people, a great temperament, and a natural ability to perform tasks.
“The skills the dogs perform tap into their natural instincts and they are never forced to do things.”
These skills also gave the Widdowson family the chance to do something they had previously never been able to do before.
Keith says: “The best thing about having a stability dog was that my family were able to go on holiday to Austria, while I stayed at home safe in Hugo’s care.”
Much research has also gone into proving that dogs can sense illnesses and oncoming seizures in humans, something that became evident when Hugo saved Keith’s life.
He says: “The extent of his intelligence and care was proved when he alerted me that something was wrong.
“He started to bark in my face, so my wife rang to the doctor and it turned out that I was going into anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction to penicillin – Hugo had sensed it.”
In January, Keith received the news that his new stability dog had become fully qualified and was ready to be his next helper.
He says: “Stability dogs retire at ten years old and Hugo was now nine. He left us on February 20, and it is the end of an era.
“I loved Hugo and Hugo loved me. I didn’t want to say goodbye but I know he will be just fine living with his former puppy socialiser.
“It has been difficult without him and I do feel lost, but I know that although Clara, my new assistance dog, won’t be Hugo, she will improve my life once again and benefit me in a different way – and that’s all I can ask for.”