Grainne, who has MS, explains  how her academic career helped make sense of her relationship with her two disability assistance dogs.

Clever Rupert the newly-qualified support dog can take a debit card out of a cash machine for owner Grainne O’Connor – but it’s so much more than just a party trick.

Grainne has had MS for the past 20 years, and as her condition has progressed and deteriorated, she has lost the use of her hands – apart from one finger which she uses to key in her PIN number.

It took yellow Labrador Retriever cross Rupert just two days to learn how to perform the task, practising on the cash machine near Grainne’s home in Kirby Stephen in Cumbria with Support Dogs’ instructors.

Explains Grainne:” I don’t have much feeling in my hands anymore, but Rupert loves doing it for me. It sounds like a party trick but it’s actually essential.  If I to have to take the card out and use it in a shop or a check out, chances are I’ll drop it, so Rupert has also been taught to hand the card to the person on the till.”

Rupert’s skill and dexterity is impressive, but it also illustrates a wider point about Support Dogs and how it tailors the training of its dogs to suit the various and often changing needs of clients.

When Grainne got her first assistance dog, black Labrador Tori, who recently retired, her MS was less severe. Now Grainne’s MS is having a greater impact on her mobility, Rupert’s training has reflected that.

Grainne, now 53, was diagnosed with MS in her early 30s while working as a health professional, first as a midwife then a health visitor. In those days she got by using a stick; now she needs a mobility scooter to get around outside the house.

When she was made redundant ten years ago Grainne got Tori as a pet and applied to Support Dogs to have her trained as her disability assistance dog. Over an eight-year period the pair were a hugely successful partnership. Grainne has since become an academic, having recently competed an Open University PhD (more of which later) and says that without Tori she would never have been able to manage the workload and the travelling.

But as Tori got older, Grainne knew the time would come when she would have to contemplate starting over again with a new assistance dog.

“Tori had a menu of tasks when she was trained eight years ago,” she says. “Obviously as my needs have changed, Support Dogs were very thorough in building up to Tori’s retirement, and what they would need to add to Rupert’s set of skills.

“The charity really understands the strength of the bond and the emotional trauma that’s attached to retiring an assistance dog for the first time.

“We get an aftercare visit every year and when a dog is eight you have a discussion about working towards retirement. It is brought up in a very safe way to get people used to the idea that it’s coming, and to give you two years to get ready for it. By the age of ten, dogs are considered senior, and they deserve their retirement and their reward for what they have given.

Adds Grainne: “It was a huge change adapting to a new dog. It was a grieving process; you’re losing a dog that you trust. Rupert could do all the things I needed him to, but I had to bond with another living thing, whereas Tori had been with me 24/7 for more than ten years.”

Tori had to be taught to be a pet dog again and to stop doing things around the house for Grainne. At first it was tough and confusing for her – both dogs would rush to the washing machine to unload it for example, or if Grainne dropped the remote Tori would want to pick it up. But gradually she stopped, trusting that Rupert would do it instead, and accepting that it was time to take a back seat.

Says Grainne: “Both dogs get on OK now. She is 11 and he is three, so she sees him as an annoying little brother! It’s now my responsibility to make sure that she gets the best retirement any dog ever had.”

Rupert and Grainne, like many of Support Dogs’ recently qualified partnerships, had to contend with training during the pandemic, but since life has started to open up again, the pair have made enormous progress.

“He was brilliant emotionally for everyone in the family during lockdown (Grainne, and her husband Andrew have two grown-up children who came home during lockdown). If one of us was down he would know and put his head on their lap – he is very intuitive to people’s feelings. He can be lively but when he has his jacket on, he does what he is supposed to do.”

With Grainne switching to a career in academia, it was perhaps no surprise that she chose a subject close to her heart for her PhD thesis: The lived experience of people with MS and their use of assistance dogs.

She says: “When I was a midwife, I met someone with an assistance dog and asked them what difference it made. She told me: ‘I would not be here now, I would not be alive if it weren’t for her,’ and I thought ‘what the dog does is to take off her socks, so how can it make such a difference? Just buy a grabber so you can take off your own socks!’ As a busy, capable, and independent woman with two young children I had little appreciation of the true benefits of having an assistance dog, but when you get a one the sum of what it gives is huge in relation to the actual parts.”

Grainne looked at the overall picture of living with a long-term condition, and the positive and negative effects of having a support dog with a finite lifespan.

She interviewed clients from two assistance dog charities including Support Dogs, looking at the lifespan of the partnership. What she found backed up her own experiences – that able bodied people become invisible when they become disabled, become visible again when they get a dog – but only when they are with the dog, which becomes the focus of attention. She also looked at how people with an assistance dog manage uncertainty and how they cope when they lose their dog, having to accept its much shorter lifespan, and the challenges of moving on to another animal.

“Support dogs make the unbearable bearable,” says Grainne. “The dog doesn’t get rid of a long-term disability or condition, but it makes it endurable in the best possible way. Dogs aren’t for everyone, but for those people who love them it’s extraordinary because they transform the whole dynamic of their interaction with society.”

Grainne is hoping her studies will contribute to raising awareness of the research base about the importance of assistance dogs in the lives of people with disabilities and inform government social policy. “Dogs aren’t just nice and cute – there’s a real research base that shows that dogs do improve people’s lives,” she says.  “They DO make a difference.”