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Blue Cross pup becomes canine partners

A YOUNG dog which had been written off as aggressive but adopted by the animal charity the Blue Cross has been trained as a fully-fledged Canine Partner Assistance Dog.

Blue Cross pup ZackLabradoodle pup Zack originally came to The Blue Cross from a local vet; his owner had taken him to the practice to be put down because he was allegedly too aggressive. The vet must have seen promise in Zack though, and instead brought him to the Blue Cross adoption centre, Burford, Oxfordshire to be rehomed.

Zack is described as ‘a larger than life dog, and full of energy’. Labradoodles are generally big and he grew rapidly into a gigantic dog, somewhat larger than others of his breed.

Jaimie Stevenson-Miller worked at The Blue Cross within the supporter services team at the head office in Burford. She used to visit the animal adoption centre next door to help out with socialising puppies in her lunch hour. It was during one of these visits that she was introduced to Zack and she fell in love with him. Although she wasn’t looking for a pet at the time, the more she saw him, the more she knew he was the dog for her. Jaimie persuaded her boyfriend that Zack should come and live with them and in just over a week, after the home checks and assessments had taken place, Jaimie took Zack home with her for the first time.

Jaimie says: ‘He was great company. I’d take him to work with me every day and we’d go for long walks at lunchtime. He’s very affectionate, great fun, but also a very big, mischievous dog!’ Jaimie and Zack got on brilliantly, although he was always a bit of a handful; playful and bouncy.

They attended classes organised by the Blue Cross’s animal behaviourist Ryan Neile and Zack gained his Kennel Club Good Citizen Bronze Award. Zack was now adept at carrying out tricks such as rollovers and turns, however he could still be easily distracted and be strangely unable to hear when requested not to pull while walking on the lead.

‘Initially, Zack was a bit of a teenage delinquent; a young boisterous pup and very intelligent,’ recalls Ryan Neile. ‘The principle of the Kennel Club Award is to give dogs some life skills. Zack has a character that finds life easy. If he were human you would be jealous of him for not having to study, but passing exams effortlessly. He is a light-hearted dog, but when he puts his mind to it he can apply himself to almost anything.’

Sadly, in the autumn of 2006, Jaimie’s personal life took an unexpected turn and she could no longer care for Zack. ‘It was a very tough decision, but Zack is a working dog and he needed lots of exercise and stimulation,’ explains Jaimie. ‘I miss him, but it was the right thing to do for us both’.

It was while he was at the Blue Cross adoption centre in Lewknor that Julie Bedford, an animal behaviourist at The Blue Cross, arranged for the charity Canine Partners to visit the centre to see if they thought Zack might make a potential partner. Julie said: ‘He is such a bright and active dog, I thought he would be well-suited to working because he needed structure and a job to do.’

Canine Partners assists disabled people so they can enjoy greater independence and a better quality of life through the help of specially trained dogs. The dogs receive a huge amount of praise, love and affection throughout the training programme, and a partner takes up that responsibility once they’ve graduated with the dog. Puppies are carefully selected using special aptitude tests that help to identify potential assistance dogs. The essential qualities needed include a gentle, co-operative nature, curiosity, a strong desire to be with people and a steady temperament. Clearly, these were qualities that Zack had in abundance.

Following successful assessment, Zack began his advanced training. Each day, he worked in both the training centre and in public, developing and honing his skills in preparation for a placement. He learnt to use his initiative as well as to respond quickly and reliably when asked. Apart from all the hard work, he also enjoyed exercise and play, which helped to prepare him for the rigours of working as an assistance dog.

Zack was chosen to be partnered with David Filmer, who has a condition called osteogenisis imperfecta and for many years he has also suffered with depression. As a wheelchair user with depression he found it even harder to motivate himself to find suitable exercise, and gained weight. He went out less and so his social circle dwindled. While fairly physically independent he still found things he couldn’t do for himself around the home, and he’d need to ask for help from neighbours and friends. This grated on him and he felt like an imposition on them, so he’d often wait before asking, find alternatives or sometimes go without.

David considered getting a dog, but as he was generally out of the house at work for over ten hours every day he thought it impractical. Then he discovered Canine Partners and learned that a working dog could accompany him to work. He applied, and after a few assessments he graduated with Zack in March this year.

David says: ‘I’m over the moon. Zack has made so much difference to my life. The need to give Zack regular exercise means that I’m getting out of the house much more. I’m losing weight and meeting people, which is helping to break the depressive cycle of hiding away from society. Zack and I are now regulars at our local pub quiz, and he’s becoming something of a celebrity in his own right, which means more people know me, too.

‘Now when I have a low day, Zack is there with a cheery nudge to let him out, so I have to get out of bed. Before Zack, I used to have low patches when I would feel terrible for days, sometimes feeling suicidal. This has ceased almost completely, and now when I feel low I know Zack will cheer me up; he’s always so playful and cheeky you could never stay sad in his company for long.’

Zack has made a practical difference to David’s life too. He opens doors, picks up things that are out of reach, and drags the laundry basket out to the washing line. David adds: ‘Now I don’t have to rely on friends and neighbours. I wonder how much of an imposition I used to be on their lives. It’s great to do things myself instead. Now I have Zack, I can’t imagine going back to life alone again.’