Molly, who has cerebral palsy, has formed an instant bond with her new disability assistance dog Chess.

Twelve-year-old Molly Birch is a happy child with the widest smile, on the cusp of adolescence.

But Molly also has cerebral palsy, which affects her balance, reduces her concentration, and makes it difficult for her to walk far without help, and gives her no grip and only sporadic use of her left hand. She started talking late, and although she is now making great progress at mainstream school, she still tires very easily. Life has been not been easy for the sunny-natured young girl.

But Molly now has a very special friend to help her navigate her way to adulthood – her very own disability assistance dog Chess, provided and trained by Support Dogs. Labrador Chess has become a cherished four-legged companion and even more importantly, given her the independence she needs as a young teenager.

Her devoted parents, Emma and Kevin, were determined to do everything they could, to give their daughter the best possible life, with the support of the child development team at their local hospital.

“When Molly was born it was touch and go, and a very worrying time,” says Emma. “We didn’t know what the future would hold for us as a family.

“As a toddler she used to get around by rolling when she wanted to move – rolling around the house like a rolling pin! And when she went to reception she couldn’t talk – just make noises. But she’s grown and developed. By all standards she has defied everyone.”

Molly has always had a special connection to dogs. Her first ‘word’ was forming the letter A, for Arthur - the name of one of the family’s gundogs.

“That was the first time we thought about involving a dog in her life,” says Emma. “She always gravitated towards dogs; she finds them very comforting. Arthur would sit by her chair when she was asleep, and she loved touching him. We lost him last year. Molly has a picture of him in her bedroom and she has never missed a night of saying goodnight to Arthur.”

The Birches, who live on a farm in North Yorkshire, first heard about the charity several years ago when they found that Support Dogs were running a first pilot child disability assistance partnership in Bristol. They asked to be considered should a second opportunity arise.

When the time came for Molly and Chess to be matched, when Molly was 10, they bonded straight away. Says Emma: “You have an expectation, but what happened with Molly and Chess surpassed my expectation. At their first meeting in the park, she ran across the grass and he went with her. It was like they had known each other all their lives. And he so quickly tapped into her needs. Having had dogs, I knew it takes time to build a bond, but this was instant.”

The pair graduated as a child disability assistance partnership in February this year. Chess shadows Molly around the house, providing practical assistance, from helping her get dressed and undressed, picking up dropped pens and pencils, fetching shoes and splints, opening and closing doors, and going for help if she needs it.

Just as importantly, Chess aids Molly with her balance. He has a handle on his harness which she uses when they go out, helping her to negotiate kerbs and busy environments, reducing the need for her wheelchair.

Adds Emma: “My favourite thing is watching them go up steps – something Molly used to find very hard. He watches her and matches her pace. She needs patience and he is a very calm dog. It takes time for her to do things and he waits. He just cares for her.”

 “It touches me to see Molly able to do things independently without an adult helping her. She doesn’t have to walk around holding an adult’s hand now she’s entering her teenage years. And he’s given her a huge boost in confidence so that she feels safe.” 

When Mollie goes to bed Chess has down time and sleeps at the bottom of Emma’s bed. Molly and Chess have their own settee in her bedroom, where they snuggle up together.

Molly says of Chess: “He is kind, loyal, and has a soft coat. We are so lucky to have him. He’s my friend and I’m very proud of him.”

Molly is now settled in mainstream school, where teachers and fellow pupils are helping her to progress, and with one-to-one support and a special curriculum she is achieving well.

The future for the young girl who loves animals, horse-riding, swimming, and most of all her assistance dog, Chess, looks bright.

Adds mum Emma:

“We’re in awe of what Support Dogs do. We’ve been so lucky with Chess and his personality and nature. Chess gives Molly confidence and pride. She counts for something. She doesn’t have to rely on people, she is independent, and she can do things for herself. She stands taller when she walks with Chess.”

Chief executive of Support Dogs, Rita Howson says: “We’re so pleased to be able to make this difference to Molly and her family. This is the second time we have run a pilot project like this, matching a disability assistance dog to a child.

“While our priority is to continue to focus on training and provide assistance dogs to meet the incredible demand of the three main programmes, we will review the success of this pilot and the viability of repeating it at some point in the future.”