Where to start? My journey to my amazing standard poodle assistance and cortisol alert dog, Rhea, began in 1974 when a horse riding accident left me permanently disabled. I needed crutches to walk until around 2010, when the pain of walking made me give in to using a power chair. I still manage on crutches indoors.
The accident ended my career with horses, but I still wanted to be involved with animals. A friend introduced me to dog obedience competitions, and I competed for over 30 years.
In 2006, I was taken ill with acute renal failure. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called retroperitoneal fibrosis. The treatment was immunosuppressive doses of prednisolone. I was lucky that it went into remission, and early in 2015 I weaned off the prednisolone. It took a couple of months but I was finally right off all steroids.
For the first few weeks, I felt okay. I had the occasional bad day with nausea, vomiting shaking, cramp, and lower than normal blood pressure. I assumed these symptoms were due to the kidney damage. In November 2015, the renal consultant put two & two together. I had secondary adrenal insufficiency (a hypopituitary condition), and was treated with hydrocortisone. Unusually for secondary adrenal insufficiency, I also needed fludrocortisone as my sodium was low and potassium high.
In 2015, I decided I needed the help of an assistance dog. I discovered that it could take up to four years to get a ready trained dog, and the breed I love best, the standard poodle, wasn't trained by any of the charities. But it is perfectly legal to train one's own dog for this work, so I searched for a puppy.
I first met Rhea in August 2015 when I travelled to meet the breeder, Rhea’s mother, and her pups. I had been recommended to this breeder, so knew I could trust her. I had an instant connection with Rhea. She was immediately my dog. Her breeder also thought she was the best one to train as my assistance dog.
For the first year, I relied on my obedience experience and help from a dog training group. In 2016, I contacted Canine Generated Independence (CGI), a not-for-profit group who help disabled people to train their own assistance dogs. They are members of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, who set training standards. They set strict criteria, including a public access test, going into areas where normally dogs aren't allowed.
I continued Rhea's training with the help of a trainer who monitored our progress online. We logged our training hours and took photos and videos as Rhea and I trained for her new tasks.
In 2017, we passed our public access test. We will take the test annually throughout Rhea's working life.
It occurred to me that maybe Rhea could alert me if my cortisol levels get too low. I found a book on training diabetes alert dogs, and used it as a guide to train Rhea to recognise if my cortisol was low.
I took saliva swabs when I knew that I was low on cortisol, to teach Rhea the scent to look for. Sometimes she is able to pick this up before I know myself.
As I live alone, this is so reassuring. I had been frightened that I might one day go into crisis and not be able to get the help I needed. Rhea alerts me by putting her front feet on my lap and snuffling around my mouth. She won't let me move my chair until I've acknowledged her alert.
Rhea learnt more tasks, such as turning light switches on and off, picking up things I've dropped, taking clothes out of the washing machine, pushing down the footplate on my wheelchair, and opening doors for me. She can pull my socks off and is learning to help with taking the rest of my clothes off. Her training continues as I discover what else I need help with.
Of course, Rhea needs general obedience training as well as her specialist tasks. She loves to learn new things. All her training is done by breaking the task down into small sections and rewarding her effort to do what I want.
At a dog show in May this year, I broke a finger in a heavy fire door. Within a few minutes I realised that I was about to experience my first adrenal crisis. Fortunately, there was a nurse at the show who gave me my emergency injection. I was blue-lighted into hospital. Rhea came with me in the ambulance and stayed by my side in the resus unit all day. The Accident & Emergency staff loved her and were so good with her. They took her out for comfort breaks, and brought her with me when I went to x-ray. I think she got more attention than I did.
In September, Rhea and I took part in Parallel London, a disabled and able-bodied event at the Olympic Stadium. We did the 5 km event – well Rhea did, I just steered my power chair. Six members of CGI took part. Between us, we raised over £1000 to continue their work. In the relatively short time CGI has been in existence, they have helped disabled members to qualify over 20 assistance dogs.
Rhea is my lifeline. She comes with me everywhere I go – doctor's surgery, hospital appointments, shopping, visiting with friends and relatives, restaurants, you name it. She comes to obedience shows, where I help with score keeping. I had been unable to get to these for a few years, but now with Rhea and my motability wheelchair accessible vehicle I am able to go again. My life has opened back up for me.
This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of the ADSHG newsletter.