Love at first sight

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04 March 2019
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Paralysed in a car crash and overwhelmed by depression, Paul Phillips felt his life had no purpose — until he met Ralph. Joanne Bednall reports...

“I couldn’t think of a better canine partner,” is how Paul Phillips describes his best friend, soulmate, and assistance dog, Ralph. Before the four-year-old Golden Retriever came bounding into his life, Paul was struggling to come to terms with a severe spinal cord injury that had left him paralysed from the chest down. Consumed by feelings of isolation and frustration, Paul found it hard relying on others for round-the-clock care. As his depression deepened, he would languish in bed, sleeping or playing computer games for most of the day.

But that late-night car crash on November 10, 2012, when fire crews had to cut Paul free from the mangled wreckage of his vehicle, was responsible for much more than almost costing the 20-year-old his life and confining him to a wheelchair. It also robbed him of his future career plans. Just three months earlier, Paul had landed his dream job and was looking forward to a career as a carpenter.

Following two months in intensive care at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, and seven months in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Paul was finally released on his 21st birthday.

But his recovery and rehabilitation experienced a major setback when his father suffered a stroke and the family Cockerpoo, Billy, was badly injured, also in a road accident.

“It was three bad events happening together,” says Paul, who now, thanks to Ralph, lives independently in his own flat in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Assistance dogs

But the turning point came when the Arsenal fan attended a football match at the Emirates Stadium in 2014. Out of the corner of his eye, Paul caught a fleeting glimpse of a wheelchair user with an assistance dog and wondered whether he could benefit, too. Back home, he researched assistance dogs online and came across the charity Canine Partners, which pairs disabled people with suitable assistance dogs.

“These dogs looked amazing,” says Paul. “I thought I’d be too disabled for a dog but decided to apply anyway.” When he was called to the charity’s southern centre in Midhurst, West Sussex, for an assessment in 2015, Paul was both surprised and elated.

“My mum, carer/PA Marco, Billy, and our other family dog, Golden Retriever Harvey, all went along to have my needs evaluated and to establish whether I would benefit from having a dog.

“I worked with lots of dogs that day and was completely blown away by what they could do — I hadn’t realised these animals could perform so many everyday tasks. Although I was told that I would need a very patient dog, I was delighted to be approved and put on a waiting list.”

Sixteen months later, in October 2016, Paul received a call out of the blue from Canine Partners telling him that they had a dog in mind. Excited but filled with trepidation, Paul headed back to the charity’s southern base, where he waited nervously in a training room.

“Ralph was brought in and told to say hello,” recalled Paul, who’s now 26. “Immediately, he jumped on to the front of my wheelchair and licked my nose, and then sat by my side for the rest of the day. It was mutual love at first sight and I instantly knew that it would work out between us.”Paul and Ralph then embarked on an intensive two-week training course.

“It was very full-on and hard work, but it cemented our bond,” adds Paul, who felt the benefits of an assistance dog immediately.

“At home, I was instantly happier and busier. Ralph meant that I could go for a 15-minute stroll on my own for the first time in four years — it may sound a simple thing but it was an amazing feeling. Life was better straight away. I started to get up every morning looking forward to seeing Ralph.”

Practically, Ralph undertakes those daily tasks many of us take for granted but which are out of the scope of a disabled person: opening and closing doors, fetching remote controls, picking up dropped items, and removing clothing by tugging at a sleeve with his mouth. Ralph can even jump up to press the button on pedestrian crossings.

A huge impact

“The biggest difference that Ralph makes to my daily life is picking up items for me,” continues Paul. “I am always dropping my phone on the floor!” But the Golden Retriever has revolutionised Paul’s life in more ways than just being a canine home help — he has had a huge impact on him both physically and emotionally.

“Ralph has massively improved my health and outlook,” continues Paul. “I go out for hours now in an off-road wheelchair rather than stay in bed for half the day or play computer games. He has helped me come out of my depression and I am less anxious now — even my consultants and specialists have noticed.

Ralph not only has given me a purpose but he’s boosted my confidence and made me more sociable. Before, if I went outside in my wheelchair, people would look the other way rather than make eye contact. But now, they come up to say hello to Ralph.”

In recognition of the remarkable and life-changing bond the pair have forged, Ralph was nominated for a prestigious national award. Hosted by Baroness Gale, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Animal Action Awards were held in October last year at the House of Lords. There, bursting with pride, Paul was presented with Ralph’s Animal of the Year Award by TV wildlife presenter Bill Oddie.

“It was brilliant that Ralph received this award — he definitely deserves it and he knew he had done something special,” adds Paul, who, for the first time in six years, is planning a holiday in the countryside. “Ralph’s my world — I really couldn’t live without him.”