Lucy Watts MBE, 23, has an undiagnosed muscle-wasting condition and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. In her blog, she talks about training her pet dog Molly to become her official assistance dog.
On the 6 September 2016, my Cocker Spaniel Molly passed her Level Three assessment and became my accredited Assistance Dog. Molly is somewhat of an unconventional assistance dog, in that she was a pet first; unlike the dogs bred and trained by the likes of Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs and Canine Partners. We got Molly as an eight week old puppy in March 2013 as a family pet, but she was a life-changer right from day one.
Before Molly I was bed bound except for going out to hospital appointments, and when I was out in my wheelchair, I was stared at, talked over and ignored. Having Molly changed that. I was getting out every day to walk her, enjoying fresh air, and got back into my hobby of photography. The four walls that had become my prison were no longer; my dog had set me free.
I was going to dog training classes every week, teaching Molly tricks at home, and even teaching her little tasks to help me, like picking up things when I dropped them. I had the best summer in 2013, my health was relatively stable and then something happened that would change the course of my life, and Molly’s life, forever.
In September 2013, our neighbours gave my mum a cutting from a magazine to give to me. This article talked about a charity called Dog Assistance in Disability (Dog A.I.D) who help disabled people train their pet dog to become their assistance dog. The charity pairs the disabled person and their dog with a volunteer trainer, and the training takes place over three levels; passing Level Three gains full Assistance Dog status under Assistance Dogs UK (the UK arm of Assistance Dogs International), meaning the partnership have full access rights under the Equality Act, they get their yellow ID book, and the dog gets its working jacket. It was perfect for Molly and I, knowing she had already learnt a few tasks to help me, so we applied. A month later Molly was assessed for her suitability which she passed with flying colours, and we started the training.
In March 2014, Molly and I were in the Friends for Life competition at Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show. We were voted winners by the British public, and it was a whirlwind of media including appearances on The Alan Titchmarsh Show. I became poorly after Crufts, and from May 2014 to May 2015 I barely walked her as I was in and out of hospital. Then my mum, who had learnt various specialist medical techniques necessary to keep me alive and at home, became ill. After securing a 24 hour care package from ITU nurses and overnight carers, and fending off the CCG’s insistence that I be put in an old people’s home, mum had her surgery. Molly was the only thing that got me through mum’s illness. She was my saving grace, without her I’d have given up.
Soon after, Molly passed her Level One with Dog A.I.D and we were working really hard on her training, enjoying lovely walks in the sun and I had a positive focus. It was short lived as in January 2016 I started getting poorly, then mum was unwell again. May came, and I started to improve, and by July I was walking and training Molly again every day. To our delight, in August she passed her Level Two, and then on the 6th September, passed her Level Three assessment, meaning we were now an accredited Assistance Dog partnership and Molly could now come everywhere with me to assist me. We got our ID book and Molly her very smart working jacket, and we started exploring the world together.
We have had so much fun, Molly really does love her job. She is also a welcome attraction at events, people love having her there. And I love having her beside me, giving me confidence and reducing my dependence on those around me.
Molly’s tasks include picking up dropped items, fetching named items, undressing me, fetching the post, loading and unloading the washing machine, fetching help, closing doors (she is learning to open them), passing notes between mum/nurse and I, putting rubbish in the bin and more. However Molly also does another task, one she has learnt herself. I have three chronic infections, and get severe infections very frequently, but due to my body not recognising these as invaders, I end up with sepsis before I get symptoms of an infection or before my temperature spikes. Molly will alert me three to four hours before my temperature spikes, giving me a warning that I am going to get poorly. She does this by incessantly and obsessively licking my hands and arms.
It’s not just the physical assistance though, it’s the confidence and mental and emotional side too. Molly broke down the barrier between me and other people. She keeps me going, walking her gives structure to my day, we have fun learning tricks and we cuddle up in bed together. I can stroke her when I am stressed to calm down, and she never fails to make me smile. The confidence she gave me led to me accepting to speak in Parliament in November 2013 – and I haven’t looked back since! I now hold seven positions within charities, have given many speeches, and I received an MBE in the New Year’s Honours 2016 for services to young people with disabilities. She really is a life-changing dog.