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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Using the cashpoint. Nipping to the shops. The heart-warming story of the pups giving hope to war heroes

By Jenny Stocks

Allen Parton, who was left paralysed and brain damaged after a road accident during a Gulf War military operation in 1991, goes to get cash with dog EJ

With his waggly tail in the air, three-and-a-half month-old labrador puppy Monty refuses to let go of the keys in his mouth.

After shaking them from side to side, he eventually decides to drop them and bounces off to find another set.

To see this naughty little mutt in action, it’s hard to believe that, in less than 18 months, he could be transforming the life of a young man who has lost limbs in Afghanistan, a policewoman shot in the line of duty or an injured firefighter.

Monty is not just playing — very soon, he will be taught to pick up these same keys and deliver them gently to the hands, or even mouth, of his future owner, who may not be able to perform even simple tasks alone.

Monty, along with five other boisterous golden retriever and labrador pups, is at the start of his training as a ‘cadet’ with Hounds For Heroes.

This one-of-a-kind charity, started in February 2010, has been set up to train assistance dogs for injured and disabled men and women from the Armed Forces and emergency services.

The animals will be able to help their owner out of bed, open and shut cupboards and even operate light switches.

At the moment there are only six pedigree canine recruits, who arrived in September and October.

Each one will cost £20,000 during its working life, but if funds keep pouring in then hopefully many more dogs will follow.

And the founder himself couldn’t be a better advert for the charity’s work.

Hounds For Heroes is the creation of Allen Parton, 53, a former naval Chief Petty Officer, who was left paralysed and brain damaged after a road accident during a Gulf War military operation in 1991, and who might not have been here today had it not been for a special labrador called Endal.

Not only did this multi-talented dog learn to help Allen get dressed, go shopping and collect money from cashpoints, among dozens of other things, but he helped him to communicate again and build a new life with his wife Sandra, 53, and children Liam, 25, and Zoe, 24.

(From left) Monty, Colonel, Flanders, Yomper and Juno. Allen created Hounds For Heroes in February 2010

‘When I came back to England, the first five years were a daze,’ says Allen.

‘I couldn’t speak, read, write or walk, and I had no emotions. I’ll admit that I tried to commit suicide twice.

'My memory was damaged so I couldn’t remember my wedding or the birth of my two children. I had no bond with my family at all.

‘Sandra was advised to put me in a home and get on with her life but, thankfully, she refused.’

Endal was the turning point. He was a puppy from the charity Canine Partners, which provides assistance dogs to those with long-term disabilities such as multiple sclerosis.

He had completed basic training, but had a joint condition that made him officially unsuitable to be an assistance dog.

He took a liking to Allen when the injured serviceman attended a puppy training session back in 1997 with his wife, who was a volunteer for Canine Partners.

Endal (named after the phrase ‘the be all and end all’) made Allen laugh for the first time in six years.

Two weeks later, after Sandra noticed the improvement in Allen, the charity arranged for the Partons to give Endal a permanent home. In return, Endal gave Allen his life back.

'I never have to nag him (EJ) to do anything. He's always looking at me, checking on me, and his head doesn't hit the pillow until I am asleep,' said Allen

‘He gave me confidence and helped me to gradually speak again — he got so excited when I got words out that it encouraged me to keep trying. Whatever my weaknesses were became his strengths.’

Gradually Allen built on Endal’s training, tailoring his tasks to his specific needs. Perhaps Endal’s most obviously heroic moment came in 2001, when both he and Allen were hit by a car.

While Allen was unconscious, Endal put him into the recovery position, covered him with a blanket, retrieved his mobile phone from under a parked car and barked for help.

This may sound far-fetched, but Endal had been taught that should Allen fall over, he must grab his shoulder and pull him over on to his side.

He’d also been trained to retrieve a blanket stored underneath Allen’s wheelchair in such cases.

‘It was all caught on CCTV,’ says Allen. ‘I was told afterwards that he wouldn’t leave my side.’

Allen is just as grateful for the bond Endal helped rekindle with his wife and children. As his health improved, he and Sandra fell in love all over again and renewed their vows five years ago — with Endal as ‘best man’.

Allen and Endal’s story has captivated people all over the world.

Endal received the Dicken medal for animal bravery and the book Allen and Sandra wrote about their experiences in 2009 became an international bestseller – and is now being turned into a Hollywood movie.

‘Apparently Kate Winslet is set to play Sandra, and Colin Firth me,’ laughs Allen.

EJ - short for Endal Junior - is also helping to train the next generation of Hounds For Heroes

Although Endal died in March 2009 at the grand old age of 13, his impact on Allen is clear, even now.

Having come down to visit the charity’s headquarters, a set of barn buildings tucked away near Petersfield, Hampshire, I’m greeted by an outgoing man who shows little indication of the trauma he has endured.

Yes, Allen is still in a wheelchair and has no feeling in his right side, but, against all odds, he has a fulfilled life.

‘Endal gave me the final gift when he died. It was the first time I’d cried since 1991. He made me feel again.’

Steadfastly at Allen’s side now is EJ (short for Endal Junior), the dog who took over from Endal just before he died. EJ will even play his predecessor in the movie.

‘I sometimes look at EJ and can’t believe how like Endal he is,’ says Allen.

‘If I get into a lift, all I have to say is “up” or “down” and he’ll press the right button with his nose.

'I never have to nag him to do anything. He’s always looking at me, checking on me, and his head doesn’t hit the pillow until I am asleep.’

EJ is also helping to train the next generation of Hounds For Heroes.

When I arrive, he is carefully watching over the six mischievous trainee puppies like a schoolmaster. Each one is cared for by a different ‘puppy parent’ — local volunteers who attend training classes once a week and reinforce the lessons at home.

After 14 months, the dogs will have finished basic training and will attend the centre five days a week before being introduced to their owner.

But it is still early days. In the main training room, head trainer Carol Court, who has been working with dogs for 13 years, beckons each pup forward.

After 14 months, the dogs will have finished basic training and will attend the centre five days a week before being introduced to their owner

‘We teach them to “push”, “tug” and “give”,’ she says. ‘Those three instructions cover everything they’ll have to do, whether tugging open a cupboard door or pushing a button on a pedestrian crossing.’

She’s just given one puppy’s foster mum a stern word on the size of the treats she’s giving as the reward for performing a task.

Eventually, treats will be replaced with praise and cuddles, because it’s important the dogs don’t scrounge, as they will accompany their owners when they are eating out.

Obedience training is also key. Watching from the sidelines, Allen has no doubts that the puppies will be able to help others like him.

This venture is a labour of love, and the idea for the charity was prompted by his appearance in an advert for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, which featured the words: ‘Remember 900,000 ex-service people with a disability.’

That hit home for Allen, who realised how many other former servicemen could benefit from an assistance dog like his.

‘It’s not just about tricks, it’s about companionship. And there’s no better way to recreate the camaraderie that you get used to in the services.’

But, from experience, Allen knew that injured veterans can be reluctant about having a service dog, as many are too proud to admit to themselves that they are ‘disabled’. Allen still calls himself a ‘wibbly wobbly’ rather than use the ‘D’ word.

'If I get into a lift, all I have to say is "up" or "down" and he'll (EJ) press the right button with his nose,' said Allen

‘If anyone had told me before I found Endal that I should have a dog, I would have refused — dogs were for disabled people, not me.

'Even now, I can be very stubborn. If I need something at the shops on the top shelf, I tend to go home without it rather than ask someone to pass it down.’

He adds that injured servicemen climb mountains, run marathons on prosthetic legs or row across the Atlantic and don’t just need a dog that helps around the house.

‘They want a dog that will be a babe magnet at a nightclub and why shouldn’t they have that?’ he asks.

With this in mind, the military ethos of the charity can be seen in every aspect of its work. The puppies wear ‘uniforms’, blue and red coats that can be emblazoned with the owner’s medals and insignia.

All the puppies have Armed Forces names, too (members of the public can pay £5,000 to name a puppy, but must stick to the theme).

The charity’s first dogs include Juno, named after a D-Day beach, Flanders from the World War I battlefield, Colonel after local hero Colonel David Sime, and Monty after Field Marshal Montgomery.

The other two names are perhaps even more poignant. Yomper, a nickname given to Marines, was chosen in honour of Royal Marine Richard Hollington, 23, who was killed in Afghanistan. His mother often pops in to see how the puppy is getting on.

Then, after the Bournemouth Air Show donated money, the final and smallest dog was called Red 4 after Fl Lt Jon Egging, 33, the Red Arrows pilot killed in a crash earlier this year.

‘The joy the puppies are bringing to the bereaved families is fantastic — they are already improving lives, which is exactly what they are meant to do,’ says Allen.

'People forget that, even when the guns go quiet, the battle with disability is just beginning for so many,' said Allen

But what of the people who will gain most from the charity’s work?

There are 50 injured men and women on the waiting list for dogs. Some were injured in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Gulf War, while others sustained injuries during peace time.

Anyone can be considered, so long as they were a member of the British Armed Forces or the emergency services and would benefit from a dog, whether to deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress, to physically help them to become independent if they’ve lost a limb, or simply to provide non-judgmental love and loyalty if they have suffered facial injuries.

‘Even when other people look at you with horror, a dog doesn’t care,’ says Allen.

‘When I couldn’t speak, Endal didn’t judge or laugh at me.’

The Armed Forces have embraced the charity, and money has been arriving from all over the military.

A £44 cheque came from a front-line group in Afghanistan, who started a swear box to raise funds. The Tower of London’s Beefeaters sent £300.

And an ex-naval man who works for a hospital sent his day’s salary when he worked during the recent strikes.

But Allen is still desperate to enlist more public help — volunteers and donations.

He says: ‘People forget that, even when the guns go quiet, the battle with disability is just beginning for so many.’

Thanks to Endal, and EJ, that is a battle Allen and his family are winning.

Cheques made payable to Hounds For Heroes should be sent to: Hounds For Heroes, Unit 2B, Rookery Farm Buildings, Ramsdean, Petersfield, Hants GU32 1RU.

Online donations can be made through Virgin Money Giving or Just Giving — links can be found at www.houndsforheroes.com.



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