Jake the wonder dog

EVEN a simple shopping trip was anything but hassle free for disabled Claire O'Brien-Ellington before she found help in the shape of a four-legged friend - a new pet dog called Jake.

EVEN a simple shopping trip was anything but hassle free for disabled Claire O'Brien-Ellington before she found help in the shape of a four-legged friend - a new pet dog called Jake. She trained him up to be her assistant and HAZEL BYFORD went out and about with the pair in Ipswich, to see Jake in action.

WE all have an ideal shopping buddy.

Whether it's a best friend who insists you do of course need that over-priced top, your mum to say your bum definitely does “not look big in that” or a partner to provide the credit card!

But for Claire O'Brien-Ellington, there's only one friend she needs on the high street.

No surprises Jake her German Shepherd dog is not the best at giving fashion advice, and he's not much fun to chat over a coffee with. But without him, Claire would struggle to get further than the bus stop.

Jake is an assistant dog, trained by Claire and her husband Simon to help her with tasks most of us take for granted.

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He picks up items she cannot reach off the shelves, lifts items on to checkouts, and opens and closes doors.

Claire, of Blackfriars Court in Foundation Street, Ipswich, said: “He's certainly no ordinary dog. He's made such a difference to my life and independence.

“I used to find shopping hell but I come to town a lot more now as I have peace of mind when he's by my side as he can help me put when I'm in trouble.

Claire, 29, has spinal degeneration disorder which means the discs in her back and neck are collapsing.

Her health has declined over the past five years and while Jake was a puppy she went from regularly using crutches to having to use a wheelchair full-time. It was partly this change which led her to train Jake.

One night while watching tv she saw a programme about working dogs where a girl in America who had a muscle condition took her 'assistant' dog to school. While in the lesson she dropped her pencil and said "Oopsie." With that her dog immediately picked up her pencil and gave it to her. On seeing this, Claire thought 'what a brilliant idea.'

After a few hours of practicing Jake was able to do it.

Since they got him in 2002, they spent four years training him and he passed his exams this month , qualifying as an official disabled assistant.

Simon, a full-time carer for his wife, said: “Once we were in a shop and he picked up an old lady's walking stick for her and she was in awe. Often he will see and hear things drop or fall and will look at us as if to say 'shall I go and help?

“We went through some ups and downs training him. Once when he was training we were in a supermarket and he was putting bits on the conveyor belt. Out of nowhere he jumped on it. The cashier jumped out of her skin before pressing the stop button and everyone panicked and looked. Some things seem to take him forever to learn but other skills he picked up so quickly.

Out and about, Jake has the same rights as guide dogs. He is registered with Dog Aid (Assistance in Disability), a national voluntary organisation.

The main difference between Dog AID and most other assistance groups is that the disabled owner learns to train their own dog, with only limited help from a trained instructor.

Claire said: “To be honest I find shopping as a disabled person in Ipswich hell.

“There are still so many shops I can't get into because the steps are too high or there's not enough room once I'm inside.

“It's really disheartening when I have to get Simon to go in for me while I sit useless outside.

“Having said that, going to town with Simon has its down points too because Jake can be a real daddy's boy. He'll give things to Simon when I'm the one who asks for them and follows Simon around ignoring me a bit.

“But he's fine if we are on our own, and I like it that he's close to Simon.”

Jake is not only a help on shopping trips. He has been trained to help Claire is all areas of life - from sorting laundry and filling and emptying the washing machine to passing her the television remote control and posting letters.

His exams in July were split into two sections - obedience and tasks. He had to prove he could sit, stay and adhere to other common demands, but also show his ability to help and that he could be trusted in public areas such as restaurants and public transport.

Potentially, he could now stay as Claire's assistant for life, but he will be tested every year to check he keeps up to standard.

Claire said: “He is like a son to us now. Because he is so well-behaved he turns heads and makes friends wherever he goes. Many of the town's shopkeepers know him by name.

“Jake has been there for me and stayed with me when ever I have been upset or ill - and he has taught both myself and Simon a few things himself!”

N

Do you have a remarkable pet? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send us an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

WEBLINK:

www.dogaid.org.uk

n Dog aid dogs are trained to help their owners at home and in public

n To become an assistant dog they must be tested ignoring food, waiting for commands and staying still for long periods

n The dogs can be recognised by red labelled identity coats and harnesses

n The Institute of Environmental Health Officers has made assistant dogs exempt from hygiene rules applying to dogs, allowing them in areas where food is being served

n Dog Aid is a charity which helps people who want to train their own dogs

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