Life With An Assistance Dog

White woman with blonde hair and brown eyes in a wheelchair, wearing a grey coat and brown bobble hat posing with a large black dog in front of white fairy lights.
By Chloe Bellotti

I have a condition called spinal muscular atrophy.  This is a degenerative muscle wasting condition that affects all aspects of my life.  I rely on an electric wheelchair for all areas of my mobility and need assistance for every single aspect of my care. 

I was bought up to believe that there is always someone else worse off – that no matter how bad a prognosis is or how painful the procedure is going to be “I’ll deal with it” and that’s exactly what we did as a family unit. However as I approached my late teens, my condition was deteriorating a lot faster than I had expected and I needed multiple surgeries.  I lost the use of my right side and had to have a feeding tube inserted as my swallowing muscles had deteriorated. Even holding my head up started to become a daily struggle as my neck muscles were weakening.  I then developed chronic kidney problems and there are very limited treatments available. I was spending at least six month every year in hospital and for the first time in my life, my disability consumed me.

Although I was surrounded by so many loving people, at times I felt like the loneliest person in the world. On the outside it looked as though I was taking it all in my stride. Between the tough times, I lead a relatively normal life with a crazy sense of humour, yet the pressure of maintaining normality was simply overwhelming. Every day I got up and smiled, but I started to suppress my emotions to the point where I felt numb. Then on a particularly bad day, I saw a leaflet for Canine Partners which caught me completely off guard. It was nestled under a forgotten pile of papers, but the bright purple corner grabbed my attention. Canine Partners are a charity who train assistance dogs to physically assist disabled people. Nothing had genuinely sparked my interest for a while, but that leaflet drove me to apply the next week. 

I always call it the “what if” stage: “What if I do get a Canine Partner”; “What if I can look after something”. The prospect of opening a door on my own or simply picking something off the floor blew my mind. These thoughts started to become my new coping mechanism. Could a dog really do such things? How is that possible? Would I get a boy or a girl? My mind was alive with questions. I waited patiently to hear back from Canine Partners and at each stage I became more and more excited. Hospital admissions became more bearable; life become bearable. At the end of 2013 I moved out of my parents’ house and set up my own little life. I couldn’t resist buying things for my potential pooch and absolutely everyone in my life now knew of Canine Partners and was following my progress.  

Eventually in 2015 I had the phone call saying I had a potential assistance dog waiting to meet me. I made the long drive to Heyshott and met Morris, a black Lab x retriever. Meeting this crazy pooch for the first time soon broke down every protective wall in my body. Eight weeks later I started my on site training with Morris. Whilst battling typical British weather, I spent two exciting weeks learning all about Morris and the best way to approach and carry out different tasks. Every day I was left in awe of what Morris could do and how this sweet boy simply wanted to please me. At the end of the course I had made lifelong friends and was taking home my very own Canine Partner, who would soon change my life.

I had always dreamed of being able to do the things I used to do before life became such a struggle but never in a million years did I anticipate that it could actually happen; then came Morris.  I describe him as an extension of my arms as he does the basic things that able-bodied people may take for granted, but I could no longer do myself. It’s the little things I notice most, like being able to open and close doors through Morris rather than asking for assistance of others, or how he patiently picks up an item that I’ve dropped 5 times already because my hands are not working well that day. To Morris, helping me is fun and exciting – every task turns into a game for him, which makes me feel much less of a burden. For the first time in a long time, instead of feeling out of place and self-conscious I started to feel invisible when I went out because people would look at Morris instead of me.  This was exactly what I wanted. Before Morris, I pretended I didn’t care when people stared at me yet inside I wanted the ground to swallow me up. With Morris I honestly forget about my disability, instead I’m so focus on what I can do now rather than dwelling on what I can’t! 

With Morris, absolutely anything is possible. Not only will he look after me physically by moving me in my wheelchair, getting help in emergencies, getting shopping off of shelves in shops, unloading the washing and many more daily tasks, he also reminds me every day that life is beautiful. 

I have never been so alive in my mind either –  I wake up every day wondering what adventures Morris and I can go on or what we can cross off the bucket list. Canine Partners not only transform lives, but they save lives and they most definitely saved mine.