'My doggy helper has given me my life back'
With his dark soulful eyes and caring nature, Deborah Cornwall felt her dog Basil truly understood her and knew exactly what she needed even before she did.
From holding doors open for her, hunting down missing items to emptying the washing machine and collecting the post, Basil gave Deborah a lot of practical support and inspired confidence in her as well as being her emotional crutch when she was feeling low.
Deborah, 59, who is married to John and lives in Hesketh Bank, near Preston, explains: “Basil was like my soulmate and was a huge part of my life.
“Basil understood me and seemed to know what I needed even before I realised I needed it myself.
“I could be in the house and drop something while Basil was asleep on the settee and he would wake up, pick it up and give it to me and then go back to sleep.
“He was always looking out for me and was such a fabulous dog.”
Deborah had always been fit and active and a huge lover of all outdoor pursuits, but at the age of 23, her life changed dramatically after she sustained a major spinal injury while rock climbing.
Deborah, who was a secondary school teacher in PE, biology and outdoor pursuits at the time, recalls: “I was climbing in my leisure time with Fylde Mountaineering group.
“I was climbing Tryfan in North Wales when I fell and sustained a spinal injury which left me paralysed from the chest down.”
Deborah suffered a broken spinal cord, a collapsed lung and broken bones in her neck and back.
Deborah’s injuries were so severe that, after intensive physiotherapy and occupational therapy, she realised she would not be able to walk again so adapted to life in a wheelchair.
Deborah says: “Before the accident, I had loved all outdoor pursuits such as climbing, fell walking, canoeing and sailing.
“I did not want to do a watered down version of climbing from my wheelchair as I had already done the real thing. But I did other sports such as fencing, table tennis and a lot of wheelchair sports.”
While Deborah was in intensive care in hospital, she lost her teaching job. However, with the help of the occupational therapist, spinal centre and teaching union, she secured a position in a primary school as a teacher, albeit on a temporary contract.
Deborah later gained a permanent position with promotion and enjoyed 22 years teaching before taking early retirement. She says: “I had a fantastic career; coaching the netball teams; teaching all subjects to eight to 11-year-olds and showing by example that being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop you achieving. Their acceptance helped me a lot.”
Deborah now works as a part-time volunteer peer support worker at the North West Regional Spinal Injury Centre in Southport where she supports newly injured patients and their families.
Deborah first heard about the organisation Dog A.I.D after her mother-in-law saw a woman with an assistance dog while out shopping. After successfully applying to Dog A.I.D, Deborah trained her Bichon cross miniature poodle Basil with the help of volunteer trainer Elaine Fairhurst.
Deborah says: “Basil was wonderful and helped me at home in so many ways. He opened and emptied the washing machine and passed me items of clothing; he opened and closed doors, he picked things up, brought the post, got shopping items from low shelves and did so much more. Basil was a huge part of my life for six-and-a-half years.
“He was just so lovely and broke the ice with so many people. When I went out with him, people wanted to stop and chat. It made me feel less invisible.”
Devastatingly for Deborah, she suddenly lost Basil when he was only six-and-a-half years-old to kidney failure and pancreatitis.
Deborah explains: “Basil suddenly developed an itchy foot but we could not find anything on it.
“He kept licking his foot and was drinking a lot. Then he didn’t want to eat, which for Basil was unheard of. This all happened within a day.
“We went straight to the vets and they found red spider mites on Basil’s foot.
“We told them about the excessive drinking and not wanting to eat and they took some blood tests and said they would ring us within the hour.
“We were shocked when we received a call telling us that Basil’s kidneys had completely failed and they had had to put him on doggy dialysis.”
Basil was in the vets for five days and after it became clear Basil wasn’t going to get better, Deborah and John decided it wasn’t fair and knew they could not put Basil through any more.
Her voice cracking with tearful emotion, Deborah explains: “Basil had lost a seventh of his body weight and was not walking properly and had pancreatitis, too. It was heartbreaking losing Basil but we could not have made him suffer any more. It would have been cruel.”
However, after returning to a home without Basil, the enormity of losing her beloved pet hit Deborah hard.
She recalls: “I felt so lost and missed Basil so much. He was such a happy do and his passing left a huge hole in my life. The things Basil did for me, I was having to ask my husband to do. The independence Basil had given me was suddenly gone.
“But it wasn’t just the physical help I missed, but the emotional support, too. I just missed Basil’s lovely little face and it was a struggle without him.”
Deborah and John knew they couldn’t replace Basil as he was so special but they decided to get a puppy to train up and try to fill the big paws that Basil had left.
Deborah was adamant she did not want a dog like Basil but a different dog and the couple contacted a breeder who had a litter of Labradoodles and went to visit the puppies.
Deborah wanted a male puppy and six were brought in. Dillon was the only one who was inquisitive about the items such as toys and keys that Deborah had taken with her and he wasn’t overly scared by noises and investigated her wheelchair.
Deborah says: “This little bundle just came and sat under my chair and looked up at me. That was it – Dillon chose me and stole my heart.”
As Deborah had already trained Basil, she had a solid base to start with and, working with Elaine again, she began training Dillon through fun and games and positive reinforcement.
Dillon qualified as an assistance dog within 19 months and now helps Deborah with daily tasks such as picking up items she drops, finding named items such as her phone, keys, purse and slippers and helping her to undress and barking on command to get attention for her.
Dillon also fetches Deborah’s medical purse from the cupboard when she needs it, opens and closes doors, cupboards and drawers and brings the phone to her when it rings.
Dillon also accompanies Deborah to work as she gives talks and demonstrations to the patients who are amazed at the ways Dillon helps on a day-to-day basis.
Deborah says: “Both my assistance dogs have given me confidence and independence as I’m less reliant on other people. Sometimes, it can be quite lonely being out on your own but, with Dillon, everyone wants to talk about him and what he can do for me, so having him there is a great boost.
“Dillon breaks the ice when I meet people as he is absolutely gorgeous and such a handsome looking dog. It is amazing how a dog can understand how you are feeling and be ready with a cuddle and a gentle lick to give comfort. I love the way they learn, the infinite patience they have and their desire to do the best for you.
“The practical help Dillon gives me is invaluable and he has given me my life and my independence back.
“Dog A.I.D are such a lovely family and have given me fantastic support since the very beginning.
“When I lost Basil, Sandra, the chairman of the charity, called to offer her condolences and also to reassure me that they would be there for me when I was ready to begin training another dog. I couldn’t have asked for a better dog than Dillon and my husband has peace of mind knowing Dillon is looking after me.”