We meet the UK’s hardest working dog — the remarkably talented assistance dog Rowley.
When Your Dog Magazine editor Sarah Wright was invited to judge the Autarky Hardest Working Dog competition 2020, she knew it would not be easy. However, a black Labrador called Rowley, from Surbiton, Surrey, stood out from the competition due to the life-saving skills he demonstrates every single day.
“All four finalists were amazing, but the title went to Rowley,” said Sarah.
“Rowley is the first ever dual-purpose assistance dog trained by Guide Dogs in partnership with Dog AID (Assistance in Disability).
“Every day he uses his incredible live-saving skills to help his owner, 24-year-old Megan Taylor, cope with a complex condition that causes hearing impairment, loss of vision, and daily fainting episodes. Rowley is testimony to how much the skills, loyalty, and dedication of our dogs enhance people’s lives.”
We caught up with Megan at her home in London to find out more about her remarkable partnership with Rowley.
Q) Tell us a bit about Rowley.
“Rowley will be four years old this month (October), and we’ve been working as a partnership for just over two years. When he isn’t working, Rowley is incredibly cheeky, even teaching himself how to open my drawer so he can steal my socks when I’m not looking! He loves nothing more than playing with his special teddy bear, going for long walks in the park, and cuddling up by my side for tummy rubs.”
Q) Can you tell us about your condition and how it affects you?
“When I was 15, I sustained a serious head injury after collapsing during a Remembrance Day service. My skull was fractured in multiple places and I was left with permanent damage to my hearing, vision, and balance.
“I was later diagnosed with an underlying heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS) or dysautonomia. I also developed a complex neurological condition known as FND (functional neurological disorder), which causes frequent and unpredictable fainting attacks, among other debilitating symptoms.
“Simple tasks such as getting undressed became a struggle, and I was at constant risk of further injury as I was losing consciousness multiple times a day and bumping into obstacles due to my vertigo and poor vision. I lost my independence overnight and was completely devastated.
“I’m now 23 and this was certainly not the life I’d planned; but, thanks to my two incredible assistance dogs, Ruby (now retired) and Rowley, I’ve achieved far more than I ever thought possible!”
Q) When did you meet Rowley and was there an instant connection?
“I first met Rowley in July 2018 at the Guide Dogs office in London. I was incredibly nervous, but immediately felt at ease when this adorable young Labrador came bounding in and paraded around the office with a door stop in his mouth. He made me laugh and I fell in love with his cheeky character. After the initial introductions, we went out for a walk with Rowley guiding me. It felt incredible! He safely led me around people and obstacles, and I noticed a huge improvement in my balance as the guiding handle and forward momentum provided me with additional stability.
“A few weeks later, Rowley came for a sleepover so he could meet my retired assistance dog, Ruby. Ruby is a Border Collie X Australian Kelpie and worked as my assistance dog for just two years before she was sadly forced into an early retirement after being attacked by other dogs on five separate occasions.
“These attacks completely destroyed her confidence, along with mine, and she was no longer able to work. Without her support I was housebound and completely dependent on others. Ruby was already part of our family as a loved pet before the accident and was trained with support from Dog AID to become my assistance dog. She is now enjoying her retirement as my pet dog.
“Thankfully, the dogs got on well together and we began our official training. Rowley and I qualified as a Guide Dog partnership in August 2018 and then began our additional training with Dog AID. He qualified as a dual-purpose assistance dog in December 2018, supporting me with my visual impairment, physical disabilities, and other medical conditions.
“In the past two years this truly incredible dog has potentially saved my life more than 1,000 times.”
Q) What practical help does Rowley provide for you?
“Rowley assists me with a range of tasks that I find difficult, such as picking up dropped items, untying my shoelaces, pulling off my socks and trousers, and emptying the washing machine. He guides me around obstacles, helps me to safely cross the road, and locates things I need such as the shop exit or a seat on the bus.
“In addition, I was able to train him how to detect and alert me to my oncoming fainting episodes using samples of my saliva.
“Prior to losing consciousness there is a slight change in my biochemistry, which Rowley can detect with his incredible sense of smell. Rowley can alert me up to seven minutes before an episode, which gives me plenty of time to find somewhere safe to lie down instead of collapsing suddenly and risking further injury.
“Whenever he notices the change in my scent, Rowley nudges my thigh with his nose. He is extremely persistent as the sooner I am safe and lying down, the sooner he gets his Bybenji Biltong treat for alerting!”
Q) Is Rowley with you 24/7?
“Rowley comes everywhere with me, holding my life so delicately in his paws. But he doesn’t have to be glued to my side. Dogs’ noses are incredibly powerful and even if he’s in another room or taking a nap, he can still detect the scent change and comes to alert me.
“Similarly, if he is enjoying an off -duty walk at the park he’ll stop playing and return to alert me if I’m going to faint. He’s never missed a single episode, including at the summit of Mount Snowdon, on a ferris wheel, and on a boat in the middle of the ocean! It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, I have complete faith in him to keep me safe. He is my real-life superhero.”
Q) How much more confident do you feel with Rowley?
“Rowley has completely transformed my life. With Rowley by my side, I’ve been able to achieve far more than I ever thought possible and have the confidence to go out and live my life without fear or restriction.”
Q) What did winning the award mean to you?
“Rowley was nominated for the award by Dog AID and I still can’t believe we won, as there were so many incredible dogs in the competition.
“Rowley saves my life every day, so to have him recognised as the UK’s Hardest Working Dog really means a lot. I’m truly blessed to have him in my life and couldn’t be prouder.”
To find out more, you can follow Megan and her dogs on Facebook; visit www.facebook.com/rubyandrowleythesuperdogs