Claire is training her dog Mitzy to help her manage her mental health and autism, as well as her physical disabilities.
Claire takes Mitzy, a 15-month-old cocker spaniel, to classes every week, where she is in training to become an assistant dog. Mitzy must first pass The Kennel Club Good Citizen Dog Training scheme and then she will move on to the Public Access training. She will need to be two years old before she can go for her public access assessment to qualify her as an assistance dog.
“She’s been stuck on silver since March, as she can’t get her food manners sorted!” said Claire. “The test is to run past the food on the floor but, for a spaniel, that’s pretty tough. But we’re working really hard so that she can get there.”
Claire uses a crutch when walking, so Mitzy’s training means that she will hopefully support Claire with tasks like picking things up off the floor, or opening automatic doors when they are out and about. Mitzy is also learning to support Claire when she becomes overwhelmed by anxiety, or experiences a meltdown.
“Mitzy can help to calm me down if I have a meltdown and become really anxious, because I've got autism that happens sometimes. She will help by doing things like deep pressure, and helping to bring me back down again. She’ll be trained to do all sorts of different things.”
Claire and Mitzy are training with Oliver’s Army Assistance Dogs at Crosshill in Fife, which supports owners to come and train their own dogs.
Claire said: “It’s quite hard to get given a dog, and I was told I didn’t meet the requirements for an assistance dog. So to be able to go somewhere like Oliver’s Army, where you cover the expenses for the dog and train with your own dog, makes it easier in a way.”
The centre also runs a mental health drop-in session every Friday, where people can go in for support and spend time with a trained therapy dog.
“Mitzy means the world to me," said Claire. "She is what keeps me going every day, gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and gives me the confidence to go out. She is an amazing support and even if she doesn’t pass her assessment, as a lot of dogs start training but just aren’t suited to be assistance dogs, she is still going to be a great help with my mental health by giving me cuddles when I’m feeling low and lying on me when I’m anxious to help bring me back down.
"I’ve had pets throughout my adulthood to help me with my mental illness and they do make an amazing difference. I have to get up and keep going because I have a pet who is dependent on me for all her needs and in return she gives me so much love and support.”