Life

Comforting the ill and guiding the blind: These amazing service dogs all have very important jobs

Service dogs enhance the lives of humans in all kinds of amazing ways. A new photography exhibition by Rankin celebrates them

Thunder comforts a patient

Thunder comforts a patient. Image: supplied

In the UK, more than 7,000 people rely on registered service dogs to help them navigate the world. Working dogs change lives – whether that’s comforting terminally ill people in their final moments, guiding the blind or detecting diseases even doctors cannot spot.  Each one comes at a cost of up to £36,000 – for the initial training, and then follow-up support throughout their lives. 

Now these remarkable canines are being celebrated in a new exhibition by renowned photographer Rankin, who recently shot a 75th birthday portrait of King Charles exclusively for the cover of The Big Issue.  

“I am honoured to have had the privilege to photograph these incredible dogs and their handlers,” Rankin says. “I have been a dog lover all my life, and know what joy they can bring, but to hear the stories of these brilliant creatures and better understand the work that they do is really eye-opening. It is a pleasure to bring together this exhibit, and I encourage everyone to go and see it first-hand.” 

Any donations made at the exhibition will go towards the Kennel Club Charitable Trust to help to fund health and welfare projects, including the training of service dogs.

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Thunder. Portrait by Rankin
Thunder. Portrait by Rankin

Thunder and Adrian 

Thunder is an extraordinarily gentle and sensitive Siberian Husky who works with terminally ill people. His handler (and best friend) Adrian shares what they have learnt about life together.

Thunder lies on the bed and holds a person’s hand as their life slips away. He slows down his breathing and heartbeat to match theirs. He bows his head and kisses them when they die, and then he calmly gets off the bed. He goes very quiet as he leaves them behind. He gets upset. A few hours later he comes and finds me for a cuddle. He knows exactly what happened. 

This extraordinary dog has supported 56 terminally ill people. He has been in the room for 18 people as their breathing stopped. We work with them monthly, then weekly and then daily. He once rested on a lady for 12 hours until she passed away. 

We take on four people at a time nearing the end of their life. We don’t get paid for it. At the moment we are supporting a boy who is three and won’t make four. He has a brain tumour. He is the most amazing boy who doesn’t know what’s happening, but he adores Thunder and so does his family. They laugh for an hour while we are there. 

Thunder wears a bell around his collar to give people happy memories of being a child at Christmas in their final moments. Sometimes people can be anxious and it’s scary to witness, but Thunder is there to keep them calm. I remember one man opened his eyes, saw Thunder beside him and said: “There is an angel” and died. 

Thunder supports people in hospitals and education alongside his end-of-life work. He has done more than 6,000 hours of therapy work in his lifetime and around 2,800 one-to-ones with NHS staff. A lot of crying happens, both on their part and mine, but we always leave them smiling. 

We knew Thunder was special when he found dementia in my dad by licking his temples. He has little signs when someone is going through something in their life. He’s found nine abuse
victims so far – seven children and two teachers. He drops to their feet as though he is having a heart attack. 

The first time he did that, the headteacher started crying. She told me about her suspicions. 

Thunder has identified women are pregnant before they even know it (he’s got it right eight out of nine times). He is amazing with children who are selective mute. He can generally get them talking in 15 minutes, and they might not have spoken for two years. His record is 20 seconds – they walked in the room, hugged him and spoke. 

A visit with Ben, whose complex symptoms seem to ease when Thunder calls round.
A visit with Ben, whose complex symptoms seem to ease when Thunder calls round. Image: supplied

I’m a big lad. I’m 6ft 4. But I cry every day. You have to be able to cry. Everything’s personal. If it’s not personal, don’t do it in the first place. I’ve got a very understanding wife who knows when it’s best not to talk. Sometimes in the dead of night it can get to you, but then you’ve just got to remember the good you’ve done in that day, and you’re overwhelmed with pride.  

We’ve been working with a 32-year-old called Ben for five years. He has major illnesses including cerebral palsy and has multiple seizures every day. He has been PEG fed for two decades and he can’t use the left side of his body – but he can when Thunder is beside him.  

I look at Ben who should have had his teenage years, or that little three-year-old boy who should be four, and the elderly people reflecting on the years passed. They have all taught me so much. We don’t know how long we’ve got. There is no timescale in life, so enjoy it. And if you can help someone along the way, brilliant.  

I don’t say Thunder’s age because, as far as I’m concerned, he’s going to live forever. We will keep going until Thunder isn’t by the front door, waiting and squeaking to go to work. Then he retires. It is entirely up to him.  

Thunder performs miracles. It is as simple as that. He will change the lives of whoever is with him. If you are looking into Thunder’s eyes, then he’s got you straight away. There’s no escaping it.  

Find out more about Thunder and the therapy huskies here

Mack and Devante. Portrait by Rankin
Mack and Devante. Portrait by Rankin

Mack and Devante 

Mack is a Labrador and guide dog to his owner Devante, who is visually impaired. They proudly break stereotypes every time they go out together

I actually had a cow before I had a dog. I guess I’ve downsized. I worked on a farm, but my sight deteriorated and I couldn’t keep working there. Just before I left I trained a cow called Venus. But as my vision got worse, I had to sell her and I got into the dog world with big Mack.  

I’ve had Mack for nearly three years. It’s been a whirlwind. When you first get a guide dog, it’s quite emotional for them. They don’t know where their trainers have gone. But over time he got used to me and he enjoys being with me. The start was a bit rocky, but now we’re inseparable.  

He has changed my life. I suffer from an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It’s like having curtains behind my eyes and they are slowly shutting. I suffer from night blindness. I could go completely blind.  

They discovered my condition when I was eight. There was a grieving process. It is almost like a loss. You have to adapt, and this is where such special dogs are so important. They help you live. My confidence has shot up with Mack. I used to be nervous. It was a stressful time. It was difficult to navigate shops and supermarkets, and now I can go independently. When you are using a cane, there is stigma and people feel sorry for you. But people just adore Mack and want to chat.  

If I didn’t have Mack, my life would be very different. Isolation comes into play. It would’ve been a slippery slope.  

I work for a charity that helps people with visual impairments. I take two trains and buses to get there because I can’t drive. At peak hour it can be scary, but Mack gets me through it. He helps me cross roads, find a chair on the train, get to the bus stop and navigate me to work with my commands. 

His personality is second to none. He is cheeky, friendly and intelligent. I’m pretty sure he’s on the peak of being Albert Einstein. He knows exactly where we’re going in the supermarket: the toy section. He knows exactly where to find the treats. 

Mack is very loving. He puts his head on my lap and looks up at me as if to say: “Are you OK?” He has separation anxiety and doesn’t like to be apart from me. He barks to let me know he’s in another room. It’s like having a baby. But I wouldn’t replace him for anything. He’s given me my life back. 

You can find out more about Guide Dogs and sponsor a puppy  here

Caitlin and Bobbin. Portrait by Rankin
Caitlin and Bobbin. Portrait by Rankin

Bobbin and Caitlin

Labrador Bobbin works for a charity, Medical Detection Dogs, which trains dogs to detect diseases and warn people when they are about to have a medical crisis. Bobbin is a demonstration dog, so he goes out into the world showing off his skills and helping to raise vital funds. He is a superstar in the making. Caitlin, who has worked with Bobbin since he was a puppy, shares why this work is so important

We work with dogs that detect all sorts of diseases – cancers, Parkinson’s, infections. Every disease has an odour. We also have medical alert assistance dogs who support individuals with a complex health condition called postural tachycardia syndrome. It causes them to become ill very quickly and they collapse without warning. Most of our clients end up bed bound. They can’t be left alone.  

Our dogs alert them around five minutes before so they can make sure they are safe. They’ll lie down with their dog until they come back round. Some people have gone from being wheelchair-bound to standing and walking. They go from being scared to do anything to having freedom. They know their dog will protect them.  

Bobbin is one of our demonstration dogs and is a superstar at showing others what we do. He comes with us to Crufts. Sometimes we joke that it’s the Bobbin show. He’s a funny character. He’ll always bring you a slipper. 

I’m a socialising trainer. I look after puppies until they are around two. Our dogs live in homes with socialisers and volunteers. My job is to support those volunteers to make sure we can train them up to be assistance dogs. 

When the client has an episode, we get them to wipe some sweat or a breath sample. And we make it a game. We might put it in our hand and go: “What’s this?” You reward that sniff. And then you make it more difficult.  

We end up putting it on secretly. If their nose switches on, it’s a huge party. It’s a huge reward and they love it. For them, if that odour appears, they get to have a party. It’s a full game throughout their entire career. Bobbin jumps on me and makes me aware an odour is present. He makes me sit down and doesn’t get off me until the odour is dispersed.  

Bobs was a bit of a cheeky chappy in his early days, but now he’s got it. He can go anywhere. He’s a total dude. He loves the attention. He’s made for the cameras.  

It takes at least two years and £29,000 to train each medical detection dog. It’s not too late to sponsor a puppy as a Christmas gift. Find out more here

The Dogs With Jobs exhibition, featuring Rankin’s photographs of 10 of the UK’s most inspiring service dogs, is on at the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Rd, London from 11-18 December

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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