SPECIAL REPORT: Jane Bullen’s amazing journey began when she decided she wanted to help train an assistance dog, Gina Stainer reports.
When Banjo arrived in Jane Bullen’s Southwater home, he turned her life upside down.
Like a newborn baby, the tiny bundle of fluff kept them up all night and needed constant attention.
But this wasn’t just any Golden Retriever puppy - he was destined to be trained as a canine partner, to one day assist people with disabilities to enjoy a greater independence and a better quality of life.
For Jane, he became part of her family for a year while she watched him grow and taught him the essential skills he needs to fulfill his destiny.
“He was just the most beautiful puppy, “ she said. “I’ve had rescue dogs from six months old before, but never a puppy just a few weeks old, so it was quite a shock to start with.”
Jane decided she would like to become a puppy parent after reading a book called ‘Second Chance’ by Elizabeth Wrenn, a tale of a woman who trains a guide dog.
But it wasn’t the right time and Jane only shared her dream with her husband Paul. Two years later, after moving house and changing her job so she could work from home, she was ready.
Jane contacted Canine Partners and was invited along to a training session the following week to find out more.
“When I was asked if I’d like to handle a dog, the thought of getting up in front of everyone and probably making a fool of myself was a little daunting,” she admits. “But I thought to myself ‘what have you come here for then?’. The dog, an already partnered canine partner, was really kind to me and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. At the end of the class a new little puppy arrived to come and meet everyone. She was delightful and I took a picture as I had a plan in mind.”
I’ve had rescue dogs from six months old before, but never a puppy just a few weeks old, so it was quite a shock to start with
That evening Jane revealed her secret to her son, who had been pestering her for a dog ever since the family lost their pet a number of years before.
“I showed him the photograph and asked him if he would like one - he nearly fell off his chair with surprise.”
They passed their home check and four weeks later Jane collected Banjo, an adorable seven-week-old pup.
“I knew it would be hard work, but it still surprised me,” she said. “It’s like another job. You have to give it your full attention, making time for the walks and puppy classes, the training and home visits from our satellite trainer. But it’s so rewarding, seeing Banjo grow and learn every day. It was amazing.”
In addition to attending weekly classes in Horley, Jane’s training at home taught Banjo to go to the toilet on command, pick up and pass items, and pull things - a skill he can later use to help open doors, pull items from a washing machine and even assist his partner with getting dressed. Then there’s the touch command, which teaches the dogs to touch a spot with their noses.
“It’s got to be fun,” said Jane. “The puppies think it’s a game. They love learning, and later on these skills become second nature to them.”
Banjo was quick to learn, and the weekly classes also became a social occassion with Jane making new friends and exchanging training tips with other puppy parents.
“He was so quick to learn and could do all his sits, downs, waits and other basic commands easily, until it came to class time when he would sometimes forget everything I’d taught him when there were other dogs around to talk to instead!
“As he matured he found it easier to focus on the task in hand.”
As he got older Banjo decided he didn’t like going in the car, so Jane spent hours playing in the car boot. He even had his meals in there. “I’m sure my neighbours thought iI was going mad!” Jane said.
When Banjo was seven months old Jane injured her leg and needed a wheelchair and crutches to get around. “Banjo was extremely gentle and protective of me, which I’m sure will be an asset for his future partner.”
Each evening Jane would plan acitivites for the following day. She took him into town, travelling on bus and train, waited outside the local school so he became used to young children and learnt to greet them gently.
“Because he will have to go into all types of situations, every time I had the opportunity for him to experience real life situations we were there. He became very confident and failed to be worried by even the noisiest of rubbish trucks right next to him.”
Next came the hardest part of the process - saying goodbye.
“I always knew it was coming, but I didn’t realise how hard it would be,” said Jane. “You can’t do the training unless you bond with the dog - unless you love him and he respects and loves you. Even though I knew all along that he would leave us, it didn’t make it any easier.”
When they were given the date when Banjo would go on to his advanced training, Jane and her family spent the last week taking him on his favourite walks. “Any sign of a puddle or best of all running water, and he would be in it,” she said.
“I do miss him dreadfully. He had become my reason for getting up each morning, because he was depending on me. And that’s the point - he will become that for his partner. Not only will he help by picking things up off the floor and opening the door, but that bond between him and his partner will also give emotional support to them and their family.
“It has been hard, but I’m so glad I’ve done it, and I’ll do it again. I don’t think I’ll find it any easier to say goodbye to the next one, but I’ll be prepared for the sadness that comes when they move on.”
Jane will be reunited with Banjo and will meet the person he is partnered with. She is looking forward to that day, and to meeting the next tiny pup she will become puppy parent to.
“It’s such a worthwhile thing to do. You’re doing something really positive that will make a huge difference to someone’s life, and you get so much enjoyment while you’re doing it.
“I would really say to people thinking about becoming a puppy parent - find out more and if you can, go for it.”
Volunteers are needed for puppy training
Dog-lovers are being sought by national charity Canine Partners to take puppies into their own homes and begin their early training to be assistance dogs for people with disabilities.
Canine Partners is specifically looking for volunteers, known as puppy parents, who can take a pup into their home from the age of eight weeks until they are 12-14 months old.
They will need to have time, commitment and a sense of humour, and be able to attend a regular training class on Monday’s at Horley Methodist Church Hall.
Trainer Ruth Narracott will be on hand to support them in their key role at classes and at home in one-to-one sessions.
Puppy parents teach the assistance-dogs-in-training basic obedience, social skills and core tasks that are essential before they move on to advanced training, where their skills are refined specifically for a disabled person’s needs.
Puppy satellite supervisor Ronnie Paskouis said: “Volunteering as a puppy parent is a rewarding opportunity for people who live in and around the area. Puppy parents train puppies in the early stages of their development before they go on to advanced training and are matched with someone who has a disability.
“Although previous experience with dogs is not required, a puppy parent will need to be home most of the day, have a secure dog-friendly garden, enjoy the fun of classes and outings and have the stamina to manage an active young puppy. Canine Partners will provide food and equipment for the puppy and cover all veterinary costs for the duration of the puppy parent relationship.”
The charity, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, has partnered more than 530 assistance dogs across the UK since it was founded in 1990.
Former Royal Marine Jon Flint, of West Sussex, who has a spinal injury and is aided by assistance dog Varick, said: “It’s amazing what a difference Varick makes – people see him in his purple jacket and give me more space. And you can’t put a price on how people respond to my disability now, thanks to him.
“Instead of talking about my injuries, which can be very negative for me, I have lovely conversations with people about Varick and how he helps me, and that is all very positive. The only downside of that is I have to allow extra time for everything when I go out, because so many people stop me and want to find out more about him!”
Canine Partners is a registered charity that assists people with disabilities to enjoy a greater independence and quality of life through the provision of specially trained dogs, whose well-being is a key consideration.
More than 1.2 million people in the UK use a wheelchair, and a significant number of those would benefit from a canine partner. The dogs are carefully matched to the applicant’s needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging. They are trained to help with everyday tasks such as opening and shutting doors, unloading the washing machine, picking up dropped items, pressing buttons and switches and getting help in an emergency. The Charity is working in partnership with Help for Heroes, and aims to train dogs to meet the needs of people with even the most complex disabilities including members of HM Armed Forces.
These life transforming dogs also provide practical, physiological, psychological and social benefits including increased independence and confidence as well as increased motivation and self-esteem. A canine partner also brings companionship, a sense of security and increases social interaction.
Canine Partners receives no government funding and is wholly dependent on public donations and legacies.
Would you like to help transform the life of someone with a disability?
We are looking for more people like Jane willing to take on the early training of a puppy that will one day do something amazing.
The Surrey puppy training satellite is looking for volunteer puppy parents, who need to be able to attend weekly puppy classes.
Reasonable travel expenses will be covered and puppy food, toys, equipment, all veterinary costs and training is provided.
For further information on becoming a puppy parent visit caninepartners.org.uk/surrey-local, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Ruth on 07764823501.
Other local satellite groups include:
1. Canine Partners Southern Centre in Heyshott, near Midhurst, West Sussex
2.Brookwood Memorial Halls in Brookwood, near Woking, Surrey
3. Upper Dicker Village Hall, near Hailsham, East Sussex
Dates for your diary
- Information Session – Register in advance to see a demonstration of our dogs in training, learn more about the work we do and sit back and listen to a talk from an established partner about the difference their canine partner has made to their lives on Tuesday 24 March at 2pm. We ask for a £2 donation per person, with free tea and coffee.
- Big Bluebell Walk - Walk your support for Canine Partners on Saturday 25 April from 10.20am at Canine Partners Southern Centre, in Heyshott, near Midhurst.
- Canine Partners Bridge Tea – Friday 29 May at Canine Partners Southern Centre in Heyshott, West Sussex, between 1.30pm and 5pm. Come along for an afternoon of bridge, tea, cakes and raffle. Teams of four can sign up for £40 per table (£10 each).
- Summer Show - See our dogs, puppies and partnerships at their home from home on Saturday 4 July at our Southern Centre in Heyshott, near Midhurst, between 11am and 4pm. There will be numerous stalls, activities, dog shows and demonstrations to keep the whole family entertained throughout the day.
More information can be found on our website caninepartners.org.uk/events or contact Holly Bryan on 01730 716013 or email@example.com