So who are Irish Dogs for the Disabled? - and how on Earth can you tell if a dog's Irish? Tee hee!
No, Irish Dogs for the Disabled are an Irish Charity who provide assistance dogs for disabled people.
Based in County Cork, the charity is three years old and already changing lives.
you can learn all about Irish Dogs for the Disabled, the work they do, see cute pictures of the dogs and pups and support by making a donation if you wish or by buying calendars etc.
So what makes someone like me want to apply for an assistant dog?
Well, for one thing, I am generally an advocate for assistant animals generally. I have experience from my family of the RNIB's puppy socialising programme in the UK and I know many people who work with assistant animals, ranging from hearing and seeing-eye dogs, to a cat who's trained to warn my friend when she's about to have an epileptic fit and needs her medicine. So I have seen at first hand just how much difference these companions can make for their partners.
In my case, I have applied to be partnered with a dog, as I believe a partnership will give me three things that are vital to a decent quality of life.
Currently I walk with a stick. Don't worry, that's not a sympathy plea, it's just what the situation is and in all honestly, I'm at peace with that to a certain extent (particularly since I was told that by Christmas of 2006 I would be in a wheelchair permanently).
If I'm at home or indoors in places I know, I don't like to use my stick. It's something I've discussed with my OT and Public Health nurse and they support me in this. - For me, it allows me to have both some time working on my strength and balance every day (which is an essential thing if I want to maintain my mobility as good as it is now) and it allows me some "normal" time.
Up until the last year, I used to manage my mobility between "one stick days" and "two stick days" depending on how bad my mobility was.
However, last year I started having sensation and power issues in my left arm.
From working with my then counsellor, I learnt that it is not uncommon after traumatic periods, for the body to go into a form of "survival mode" where the body sort of ignores or switches off to an injury in the short to medium term to enable us to deal with the business of surviving, so even though it was 2007 when I was hurt, the true extent of the damage didn't show until the spring of last year when I'd got through my counselling and my body was relaxing out of that survival mode.
The problem with my arm, means that I can no longer necessarily rely on two sticks on really bad days. So the choices were, sacrifice mobility altogether on those days (never a good idea - you end up playing catch-up with yourself forever!) or find another solution.
So, if I successfully get matched with an assistant dog, I will be able to turn one stick days into 'walking with dog' days because the dog will be able to provide me with a stable base of steady forward motion that I can use to keep myself balanced and mobile and two stick days, which are currently no mobility days, would become dog and stick days, which means that I will be more able to get around independently EVERY DAY no matter how good or bad it is legs-wise.
Having a doggy companion will also allow me to ride public transport when I need to without having to try to find someone to accompany me. - Another lease on independence.
So that's the chief way that being paired with an assistant dog would change things for me, but there are other benefits too.
The biggest single benefit, from my perspective, is the element of boosted confidence.
Sad to say, no matter how good people are about disability (and I'm thinking of all people here from Jo Public all the way through to medics and everywhere in between) the reality often is that if you happen to be both young (say under 30) and disabled, the greater amount of the time you're going to hit one of two negative attitudes - either that soft, head on one side gesture with masses of sympathy for "you poor dear" which is sweetly meant, but actually can really undermine and undervalue you and make you feel like you're of no worth at all, or, on the other end of the spectrum, you get the attitude (ridiculously enough often from fitness professionals and physios etc) that if you happen to be young and disabled, then somehow you're just not trying hard enough.
Now call me paranoid if you want to, but I reckon a whole heap of that's tied up in the stick - and a lot of other stick users agree. Especially when you're young, it's incongruous - it doesn't fit with people's expectation and I think when people are wrong footed, that's when a lot of the accidental ignorance situations happen - just mainly because people are uncomfortable.
So believe me, if I'm successfully paired with an assistant dog, one of the things that I'm going to revel in is being able to go out alone with him/her WITHOUT THE STICK and enjoy being able to engage in a world where the snap judgements made about me are less likely to be that I'm incapable, or weak, or just too odd to comprehend.
That, I'm aware is going to seem an odd thing to say for anyone reading this who's an able-bod, but if you think about it, it's not so unusual. - One of the beatiful, complicated parts of the human animal is that we make value judgements, all of us, it's natural and all of us want to present to the world our 'Best Face' and it damages our mental health when we can't do that.
So CONFIDENCE is something that I believe working alongside an assistance dog will bring as well as the DIGNITY of having a better stab at being accepted and identified by my personality rather than my disability first.
The application process so far has been fairly easy.
A simple, downloaded form from their website in easy language, asking direct questions about our family and support network, our ability to keep up with the application process and to attend for training, and most importantly, our ability to care and provide for the animal we hope will be put into our care.
We went down to Cork last summer to meet with Jenny who's in charge of training the dogs and to go through the application and just talk about the benefits of a partnership, as well as making sure we all know about the downsides too and can cope with them. (Fortunately I'm well used to clearing up fecal mess from a variety of babies, people, cats, dogs, etc.)
Now, it's a waiting game.
Pups live their first year with "socialisers" who are volunteers who, as well as taking care of the puppy's needs, introduce the basic good manners s/he will need later on and expose the puppy to life in all its glorious facets so that the puppy gets used to a broad range of sights, sounds, and smells, ready for when they go out into the world.
After about a year, pups enter their training. One of the cleverest things about the assistance dogs scheme, I think, is that the skills that pups learn - and therefore the partnerships they're placed in, is dictated by the individual hound's personality and aptitudes.
Our hope is that maybe one of the current or next batch of dogs after this one might be a match for me.
Meanwhile, we're doing what we can to support this wonderful charity.