National Pet Month: the best companions


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27 March 2024
As we celebrate National Pet Month, we share a story that highlights just how special having dogs in your life can be…

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The theme of the first week of National Pet Month is companionship — celebrating how much pets bring to our lives. Here, we delve share a story which captures just how much dogs make the most incredible companions. Police dog Gilly was PC Darren Sewell’s rock during cancer treatment, but their roles reversed when the German Shepherd fell seriously ill with canine coronavirus…


It was Christmas 2019 and PC Darren Sewell wasn’t feeling too well. The 45-year-old Leicestershire police dog handler and instructor had been suffering from what he later believed was COVID-19, just as the pandemic was in its early stages.

Despite overcoming the illness in January, Darren developed a stubborn cough, which he assumed was the tail-end of the virus.

“By April, I was still coughing, so I went to see the doctor for some antibiotics,” explained Darren, who lives near Hinckley in Leicestershire. “But this failed to do the trick, and I was sent for a chest X-ray.”

Just 24 hours later, Darren was left reeling when the results revealed a 99.9 per cent chance of a tumour on his lung.

“This was the worst possible news,” said a devastated Darren, who was referred to a specialist at the Glenfield Hospital, on the outskirts of Leicester, within 48 hours. There, he underwent further tests before being diagnosed with stage 4b blood cancer, and being transferred to the Leicester Royal Infirmary. After a PET scan highlighted tumours on his lungs, liver, and hip, a treatment plan was devised and Darren was started on six rounds of chemotherapy at three-weekly intervals.

“It was tough going and one of the hardest things I have ever done,” said Darren, who not only had to contend with the effects of chemo, but lockdown too. “The worst things were being sick and not sleeping, but my dogs gave me something to get up for.”

Darren’s four dogs at the time — elderly Labrador Marley; retired police dog Stella; firearms support dog Gilly; and police dog puppy Jura — remained by his side following his diagnosis. But it was Gilly who seemed to sense most that his handler needed him. Darren and the then seven-year-old German Shepherd had forged a formidable partnership at work. Describing Gilly as a “standout dog”, Darren always knew he would be special, despite a shaky start to his career.

“He proved rather challenging to begin with,” recalled Darren. “Gilly was mischievous and had been through several handlers, nipping at one officer’s feet while he was trying to do heel work. But we bonded straight away, and he excelled as a well-rounded and level-headed dog in a challenging role.”

Although Gilly remained in police kennels for six months, he spent two weeks at home with Darren following each treatment.

“I’d sit in the garden and play with him, and he’d stay on the patio with me,” recalled Darren. “He didn’t want to leave me when my colleagues came to collect him, and even now when we’re on the patio together, Gilly worries he might be taken away again. He picked up on my illness, and it really affected him.

“We’d worked together for six years; Gilly was my partner in crime and now he was my therapy dog during treatment. Having him here, lying across my lap, was a real comfort, while getting out to walk him helped my treatment, health, and recovery hugely.”

Following his final chemo and a further PET scan, Darren was given the all-clear, but was closely monitored over the next 12 months.

“It was a massive relief to finally be in remission, but it had been a tough couple of years,” added Darren, who focused on training puppy Jura, the young German Shepherd X Czech Shepherd, in a neighbour’s paddock while he was signed off work.

“I always knew Jura was going to be special, so I invested a lot of time in training him before I was diagnosed,” explained Darren, who described the now three-year-old dog as a “star performer.”

“I’d taken him to East Midlands Airport, on a plane, and to football matches, so giving Jura up while I underwent treatment was hard.

“A colleague looked after him but brought him back on the days I felt well enough to continue his training.”

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By early autumn 2021, Darren had returned to work, and Jura and recently retired Gilly were back home with him full-time. But just as normality returned, disaster struck again in early 2023 — and this time, it was Gilly who needed support.

“Jura had been poorly a few weeks earlier and the force ensured he received the very best of care, and thankfully, he was back on his paws in no time at all,” recalled Darren, who separated his dogs after vets diagnosed a nasty virus.

“When Jura fell ill, I panicked and thought I was going to lose him, then when Gilly developed the same symptoms, I panicked again and thought I would lose him, particularly as he was older and really poorly,” said Darren.

Gilly was placed on a drip and given medication, while tests revealed he had canine coronavirus.

After two days, Gilly finally perked up and was allowed home, but it took another four weeks for the German Shepherd to return to his normal self and start putting on weight again.

Darren is immensely grateful to The Thin Blue Paw Foundation, a charity that supports retired and serving police dogs, for stepping in and contributing towards the £1,000 vet bill.

“I knew I had to be there for Gilly and ensure he had the very best treatment during his hour of need, but this was a cost we didn’t expect, which came out of nowhere, so I’m hugely grateful to the Thin Blue Paw Foundation for covering the bill for Gilly’s emergency stay,” continued Darren, who was surprised and honoured to receive the Special Recognition Award at the 2021 Thin Blue Paw Awards.

“Gilly and I were invited onto ‘BBC Breakfast’ in Manchester, which was an unusual but fun experience. I was very nervous about being on live TV and prayed that Gilly would behave, but he was brilliant.

“I love Gilly to bits — he’s a cracking dog — and I feel really lucky to have him. He’s been a dream — a police dog and therapy dog all rolled into one!”

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