ELEVEN YEAR old Tom Harris's life has changed forever this week thanks to "Pals with Paws", a UK-first scheme to train dogs to help disabled children.
Tom, who has cerebral palsy and has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, will be sharing his home from now on with Viggo, an eighteen month old golden retriever cross labrador (named after the actor from Lord of the Rings) who will be Tom's full time companion, carer and playmate.
Viggo has been specially trained to help Tom with everyday tasks including opening and closing doors and picking up dropped items, as well as playing football and even helping him tidy his bedroom!
To date in the UK, skilled companion dogs have only been trained to help adults. But thanks to a joint campaign between pet superstore chain Pets at Home and charity Dogs for the Disabled, a scheme specifically for children has been established.
"Pals with Paws" supported by fundraising done in Pets at Home's 158 stores, will operate alongside Dogs for the Disabled's current training for adults. Due to the differing needs of children however, the charity has designed a specialist programme where the dogs will also be trained to help the child play, assist with vital physiotherapy and provide crucial moral and mental support for disabled children who often feel isolated and excluded.
Hilary Harris, Tom's mum explained: "I'm absolutely over the moon Tom has been chosen to have Viggo. He will make such a difference to Tom's life and, as Tom's due to start secondary school next year, will give him loads of added confidence and independence.
"Tom's a fanatic Liverpool fan and having Viggo will mean he's much more able to get out into the park with his friends and play football - I'm sure Viggo will enjoy joining in too! He's such a lively, loving dog we can't wait to get him home and settled in!"
Linda Whiting from Pets at Home added: "We're absolutely thrilled the first Pals with Paws partnership has been matched. All our stores have worked really hard to raise the funds to get the campaign off the ground, but watching Tom and Viggo together has given us all renewed motivation to keep going so we can help fund more dogs and help more children like Tom."
Tom and Viggo have just completed two weeks training at the Dogs for the Disabled training centre in Banbury. The pair will receive ongoing support from Dogs for the Disabled experts, starting with the basics such as grooming and feeding but then moving on to particular tasks so that Viggo can assist Tom in his everyday life.
Peter Gorbing, chief executive of Dogs for the Disabled said: "Tom and Viggo are a great pair! Both are full of fun and energy, and I'm sure they'll be inseparable. We hope this is the first of many successful partnerships between dogs and children and we're really keen to help as many as we can. It's not an easy and cheap process though so we're going to be reliant on fundraising to keep it going, but I think Tom and Viggo will be great ambassadors for us!"
Pets at Home stores across the UK are raising money to support the Pals with Paws scheme. Anyone wanting to make a donation can pop into a local store (0800 328 8255 store locator line).