They say a dog is man’s best friend. Tracey Robinson’s beautiful black labrador, Kofi, is much more than that.
Kofi collects the post and can open and shut doors – little things Tracey often finds difficult in her daily struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Tracey was 25 when she was diagnosed with the debilitating condition which her mum, Shirley, also suffers from. Shirley was diagnosed in her 40s, and Tracey says being able to talk to her mum and share experiences helps them both.
Tracey’s initial instinct that something was wrong stems from an episode of double vision when she was 15. She had an operation to correct a squint and saw a neurologist, but it would be many years later before she was diagnosed with MS.
Around 100,000 people in the UK have MS. It is normally diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40.
MS is a complex condition with many symptoms which can include fatigue, dizziness and vision problems. Balance can be affected, along with the bladder. It can also cause stiffness and spasms.
While nursing, Tracey noticed her leg dragging after a shift and pins and needles in her hands, but she put it down to the effects of having done a long shift.
Dizzy spells and the loss of the use of her right side were symptoms she couldn’t ignore, and after being referred to another neurologist, Tracey was diagnosed with MS.
Her eldest child, Sam, now 25, who runs the family pub in East Bierley, was six months old at the time, but Tracey never let it stop her living her life and copes with it as best she can.
Her daughter Kate is now 20. Both have been to university and Tracey is proud of them and continues to give herself goals.
“I used to have goals in my head – ‘I have got to wait until they are both at school before I get really bad’, ‘I have to wait until they have both left home’ – and now I think, ‘I have to wait until they are married before I get really bad’. It’s moving goals on,” says Tracey.
Her mobility is severely affected. She has an electric wheelchair and a scooter to go out and she never goes out alone.
Tracey has a supportive network around her with friends and family and Kofi, of course.
He joined the family three years ago after Tracey’s husband, Nick, found out about the charity Dogs for the Disabled.
“You hear about dogs for the blind, but I’d never known about them,” says Tracey, referring to Dogs for the Disabled.
“Nick went into it and said the dogs could pick things up for you. Bending down can be really bad for me. If I knelt down to pick something up, I wouldn’t get back up again,” she explains.
Kofi is specially trained to help Tracey around the house, and he can open and shut doors for her.
“If I drop something like the remote control or the phone he will pick it up for me and he fetches the post when it comes,” says Tracey.
“He’s also company for me. I know he is there.”
Tracey tells how Kofi is constantly by her side. He waits while she gets showered and changed on a morning, making sure she is all right.
“He is a lovely dog. He is so gentle,” says Tracey.
Kofi has a special coat so people know he is a working dog. Around Tracey’s home village he has become a mini-celebrity. “Everybody likes him,” says Tracey. “He is just somebody else to watch over me.”
Since its inception in 1988, Dogs for the Disabled has trained more than 575 assistance dogs. There are currently more than 250 working partnerships and teams across the UK.
Assistance dogs are provided for adults and children. The charity also offers an autism assistance dog service for children with an autistic spectrum condition between the ages of three and ten.
At eight weeks old, the puppies are given to a puppy socialiser, a family who volunteers to look after the puppy for a year, getting it used to sights and sounds in preparation for it becoming a qualified assistance dog.
Opening and closing doors; helping a person dress and undress; barking to raise the alarm in an emergency; picking up items such as mobile telephones or dropped articles like keys or a bag; loading and emptying the washing machine; retrieving slippers, gloves or a remote control; switching lights on and off; fetching the post; pressing a pedestrian crossing button; reaching up to shop-counters with items such as a wallet and helping people to walk by providing a constant forward motion are just some of the tasks the dogs are trained to do.
But the cost of training an assistance dog is £18,000 and the charity receives no Government funding, relying on voluntary donations to fund its work.
Since 2004, Dogs for the Disabled has had runners taking part in the Great North Run to support its cause and the charity is appealing for people to participate in this year’s run on Sunday, September 16, to help raise much-needed funds to enable it to improve the quality of many more lives.
To find out more, visit dogsforthedisabled.org/support-us and click on ‘Raise money for us’, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (01295) 252600.For more information about multiple sclerosis, visit mssociety.org.uk.