Flat-Coated Retriever Raven was recommended by Ian and Margaret’s GP as a means of improving their health and mobility. Three years later Raven has just qualified as Ian’s disability assistance dog.

Over the past three years beautiful Flat-Coated Retriever Raven has been bringing some much-needed light into the lives of Ian and Margaret Chadwick.

Ian, now 65, has suffered from a severe, crippling form of inflammatory arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis for many years. Eighteen years ago, while bending over to put a video into a recording machine, he blacked out and woke up in intensive care.

“I’d been suffering from bouts of back pain, and it transpired that my vertebra had collapsed, causing the disc to sever and affect the nerves in my spine,” he recalls. “They told me I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”

At the time of the incident Ian was in his late 40s He had a very active life, kept hens and bees, and enjoyed climbing, walking and horse-riding.

With supreme effort he managed to learn to walk short distances “due to sheer bloody-mindedness” using crutches but is in near-constant pain which painkillers barely touch. He has had his right knee replaced, and will need the left knee and both hips replacing. Osteoarthritis has fused bones in his ear and affected his hearing, and the drugs have damaged his kidneys. He had to take early retirement on medical grounds from his job at Customs and Excise seven years ago after working for Royal Mail for almost 40 years.

Ian and Margaret, who also has serious health problems that prevent her being active, had always had dogs in their younger years. But three years ago, Margaret’s doctor advised her to get another to encourage them to get out more.

“He jokingly wrote me a pretend “prescription” that said: ‘Any dog, any size, any colour,’ “says Margaret. “So we got Raven for my birthday from a breeder and she was the pick of the litter.”

The smitten couple soon realised that not only was Raven a beautiful dog, but was also extremely smart, and would be an ideal assistance dog for Ian.

“She is the most intelligent dog I’ve ever owned, and I’ve owned a lot - she knocks them into a cocked hat,” says Ian.” She is so perceptive and intuitive, and really wants to learn and to please you all the time.”

Ian and Raven were accepted into Support Dogs’ disability dog programme last year where she flew through training, and qualified in May. Ian struggles to take his socks off and get his arms out of jumpers and shirts so Raven helps with that, also picking things up he’s dropped. Raven also alerts Ian when the smoke alarm goes off, pouncing on him enthusiastically, and has been trained to fetch help if he falls.

But as many Support Dogs’ clients attest, the companionship and close bond between man and dog is just as important as Raven’s practical assistance. Over the years of his illness Ian has suffered from periods of severe depression and Raven has been essential in helping him to deal with his ‘big black dog’ of depression.

 “She is always there for me when I am low or depressed, and she is such a pick me-up,” says Ian.

“She is always happy to see me, never has an off day, never grumpy or bad tempered. She instinctively knows when I’m struggling and when I’m in pain. She watches me all the time, my little shadow.

“When I’m chewing my knuckles with pain she will plonk her head on my knee as if to say: ‘cheer up dad’. Where I am is a very lonely place to be, and she breaks down those social barriers when I’m out, and makes it easier to talk to people.”

Adds Margaret: “Raven is so confident, and nothing seems to faze her. She follows Ian everywhere and even goes into the bathroom when he’s in the bath and puts her nose in all the bubbles. Everything is a game to her!”

Ian and Margaret and Raven live in a terraced house in Prestwich, which has been adapted for his needs, and Ian, a practical person, keeps busy doing DIY and painting – which he can do sitting down, and has a new hobby of making leather belts.

“When people tell me ‘you can’t do that’ then I have to do it – you only fail when you stop trying,” he stresses. “My faith is important to me, and this little lady, Raven, is a godsend. She’s brilliant.”

Margaret adds:

“Having Raven made such a big difference to Ian and to me. He can go out with her, and I don’t have to go every time. It’s freed me up and given him more independence. And it’s all thanks to Support Dogs.”