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Wednesday 29 June 2016

Paddy and his "labradorable" canine partner

Posted by: Help For Heroes | Categories: General

“Melvin would vigorously lick me 30 minutes before I had a seizure. Melvin and I haven’t just bonded, we are welded together. Life is so much better now.”

Former RAF Pilot Paddy Blair was partnered with his new best friend Melvin in 2015, thanks to a partnership between military charity Help for Heroes and Canine Partners.

This is Paddy's story:

I flew Tornado F3 fighters in the Royal Air Force until I had a severe traumatic brain injury whilst on operations.  Unfortunately this left me with uncontrolled epilepsy, as well as poor balance and co-ordination.  This and the myriad of other brain injury problems, led to me being medically discharged from the job that I loved.

Suddenly, life had dramatically changed for the worse. I had only seconds of warning before a seizure, which didn’t give enough time for emergency medication to take effect.  I was constantly injuring myself in falls, resulting in a dislocated shoulder a number of times and my vision and hearing suffered permanent damage.  My wife works full-time and she hated leaving me alone, having previously returned home to find me in status epilepticus – a life-threatening series of seizures.

I struggled with my loss of independence and hated being reliant upon others, yet found day-to-day tasks very difficult to do on my own.  I walk with a stick and my injury is invisible, so people naturally assume I am mobile and have little wrong with me.  I therefore found it difficult to go anywhere with lots of people as my wonky brain found the multiple visual and audio inputs overwhelming.  Getting out became a nightmare for me and life really wasn’t good.

I first heard of Canine Partners during a stay at one of the Help for Heroes Recovery Centres.  I was relaxing with fellow injured veterans one evening when up drove a colourful van containing a team of very friendly and enthusiastic people.  Even more friendly and enthusiastic were the Canine Partners demonstration dogs that followed!  I will never forget that evening - not only was I enthralled by what these dogs could do but also the obvious joy they got from doing it.  Having a huge doggy cuddle later might just have bought a tear to my eye and I applied to Canine Partners the next day.

As the number of dogs that Canine Partners can train is dictated by fundraising and the number of applicants is high, the application process inevitably took some time. I was really impressed by how much detail the assessment team went into, ensuring that a canine partner would not only benefit me, but also that I and my family were capable of looking after such a valuable and amazing dog. However, eventually I got THAT call – Canine Partners thought they had a dog that would be a good partner for me and wanted to bring him to meet me. As our ‘first date’ approached, I really was quite nervous – what would we think of each other, how would the dog react to me, what would the trainer think of me?

The day arrived and went fantastically well from the minute a gangly black dog carefully jumped out of the car on command and sat beside his trainer.  This was Melvin, a Labrador x golden retriever and we hit it off straight away.  His trainer had us carry out some basic manoeuvres together to see how we worked as a team and then we had some fun playing in the garden. He was very relaxed yet careful, almost as if he knew he had to be good. I noticed that every time I asked him to do something, he would do it straight away but always glance to his trainer to check this was okay. I wondered if I would ever have such a bond with this handsome boy. Thankfully, the trainer thought we were a great match and booked us on a residential training course at Canine Partners Southern Centre.

Residential training was challenging, tiring, busy and hard work, yet one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Melvin’s trainer and the whole team at Canine Partners were utterly focused on forming the best possible bond and working partnership between us. What’s more, the other new partnerships on the course inspired, encouraged and helped each other.

We were taught how to handle our dogs in a variety of situations and places, how to look after their health and wellbeing as well as the best way to give them the right amount of exercise. We worked on tasks specific to our disabilities, in my case Melvin had been taught how to set off our home alert system, bring my meds bag, retrieve things I had dropped, bring the phone and tug me upright after falling. His general behaviour was impeccable and he quickly enjoyed having fun and cuddles with me, despite the fact he was going through huge changes in his own life.

Although Canine Partners do not train seizure detection dogs, their training procedures form a very strong bond between dog and human.  I quickly noticed that Melvin vigorously licked me about 30 minutes before I had a seizure during the course, an action that was encouraged and greatly rewarded.  After those two weeks, I felt ready and prepared to take my canine partner home.

This was a time of change for all of us as a family. Having an assistance dog brings huge benefits but also a heavy sense of responsibility and I wanted to get it right. Canine Partners use aftercare trainers to help you establish your partnership at home and continue to train together. Hearing that we were doing things right and that Melvin was settling in well really boosted my confidence.

Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength and my wife recently commented that Melvin and I aren’t just bonded, we are welded together! Melvin continues to alert me to seizures, crucially allowing my emergency meds to work and enabling me to get to safety and privacy before they strike. This has meant much less damage to myself during seizures and I am safe in the knowledge he can set off our home alert system if the need arises.

Melvin has given me a new sense of independence.  We go out together by ourselves and have even flown to see family alone.  My wife knows absolutely that Melvin will look after me after when she is not there.  Melvin’s presence in his smart Canine Partners purple jacket has changed my outlook to public busy places.  He seems to clear a path ahead of us and as I am concentrating on him, my brain is affected by the stimuli much less. 

Life is so much better now – it is easier, less stressful and a whole lot more fun. I look after Melvin and Melvin looks after me; we are a partnership, a canine partnership.

Grant Funding from Help for Heroes has allowed Canine Partners to successfully pair up 9 injured Servicemen and women with dogs who have had a remarkable impact on their lives. Since 2010, Help for Heroes have grant funded £156,500 to Canine Partners.