IT IS often said that a dog is man’s best friend, but for many people with disabilities or medical conditions the bond they have with their animals is even stronger.

Dogs can be trained to help the blind or deaf, people with physical disabilities or those with health conditions such as diabetes or cancer.

In some cases they can literally be life-savers, but the companionship role they play can be equally important.

Eleven-year-old Steven Courtney, from Ambrosden, near Bicester, has had his life transformed by his medical assistance cocker spaniel Molly.

The Gosford Hill School pupil was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of three, and needs to constantly ensure his blood sugar levels do not fall too low.

Mum Serena, 41, said: “Steven does not have symptoms when the level is changing; quite a few children don’t have this.

“Molly is our warning system. The only other way to test is by pricking his finger to get a blood sample.

“Before we had her I was doing it through the night.

“When he was first diagnosed he heard things which were said about his condition at the hospital and he was very concerned about it.

“He would be up testing five times within the first 40 minutes of going to bed.”

Four years ago Molly joined the Courtney family, when she was just a family pet, not an assistance dog.

But when Steven and his mum took her to dog training classes they realised she might be able to help her master.

Mrs Courtney said: “A lady came to talk from Medical Detection Dogs and she asked Steven if Molly realised when he was low.

“She said to me we should watch Molly carefully because she may know and we could maybe apply to train her as a medical assistance dog.”

At first Mrs Courtney and her husband Paul, 43, were sceptical but they began to notice that when Steven’s levels were low Molly would get very excitable and jump on him.

They applied to have Molly trained and were successful, making her a fully qualified assistance dog.

While wearing her red medical assistance dog jacket she is able to go anywhere, just like a guide dog.

On one occasion she saved Steven a trip to the hospital, at the very least, and possibly saved his life.

Mrs Courtney said: “When she was young he had a seizure in the night and she started barking and alerted me because I was asleep and checking him every two hours.

“One and a half hours after my last check she woke me up barking.

“She is warning us a lot earlier now, but that time she saved him a big hospital trip at the very least.”

Molly’s sense of smell means she is able to detect minute changes in blood sugar levels. When they rise or fall outside the normal range she is trained to get help and fetch medical equipment.

Mrs Courtney said: “She fetches his blood glucose meter and brings it to him. When friends or relatives are around she loves showing it off to them.

“They have a very close bond – it was always quite special even before she was trained.

“People would say they were very close and very sweet together but when she was trained that really cemented it.”

The companionship provided by a dog is also important to guide dog user Gavin Hageman, from Witney, below with his guide dog Richie.

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  • Picture: OX69376 Marc West

Mr Hageman suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in September 2008 which caused him right-sided hemianopia, meaning he has no left-side vision in both eyes.

He said: “I find it difficult to see anything that moves; busy town centres are difficult for me.

“I tried to make a trip into Oxford after I tentatively learned to walk with a stick and it was awful. I bumped into so many people.”

Mr Hageman decided to apply for a guide dog and was given one called Peter.

Peter walked too fast and Mr Hageman found it challenging to walk with him so he was replaced by his current guide dog, retriever-labrador cross Richie.

Mr Hageman, 51, said: “He gives me stability and balance, he shows to other people that I’m blind, he helps me move about and he gives me company as well.

“Disabled people are quite vulnerable and he barks if someone knocks on the door.

“He’s not aggressive, though he would probably lick them to death. He is a good fun chap.”

Guide dogs are trained before being handed over to their new owner, but there is still a learning curve for both parties.

Mr Hageman said: “The owner has to learn about the dog and how to walk with them.

“Imagine you are driving your car and you have a five-year-old child next to you and you let them take over the steering.

“Trusting a dog to take over is a big step. All my life I have had my own hands on the steering wheel and now I have handed it over to a dog.

“Richie is a very calm, steady walker and he is very important to me. My condition gives me difficulties multi-tasking so having him in control is important.”

  • To find out more or to apply for a medical detection dog, visit
  • Medical assistance dogs are trained to help people with complex health conditions by identifying the odour changes associated with life-threatening medical events. Many people do not have warning signs before such events occur. Diabetes is one of the common conditions the dogs are trained to detect, with their sense of smell indicating when blood sugar levels rise or fall outside their normal range. But the dogs can also be used by people with Addisonian crisis, which causes severe pain, convulsions and unconsciousness, and narcolepsy, a malfunction of the sleep regulating system which causes sleep attacks and paralysis. The dogs wear a red coat and are legally entitled to join their owners in restaurants, shops, public transport and other public places.

TRAINING a guide dog is an expensive and time-consuming process. It takes about 20 months and £50,000 to train one puppy, according to the Guide Dogs charity.

For the first six weeks of a guide dog’s life they are with their mother and siblings and spend most of their time playing, exploring and sleeping.

At the six-week mark they go for health checks and immunisation at the National Breeding Centre, near Leamington Spa.

From six weeks to four months they move to a puppy walker’s home, where they learn basic commands such as learning to sit and how to walk on a lead.

They then move on to learning how to negotiate stairs, busy shopping areas and various means of transport.

Once the dog reaches 14 months it will move to guide dog training school, where a professional trainer will teach it how to deal with kerbs and avoid obstacles.

Finally, between 20 and 22 months the dog will qualify as a fully trained guide dog and will be matched with a person suffering from sight loss.

Cocker spaniels are renowned for their sense of smell and so make excellent medical assistance dogs, while labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds are the most common pure-breed guide dogs.

Denise MacRae, of Over Norton, below with some puppies, has been breeding guide dogs for four years, and her breeding bitch Odelle has now retired after giving birth to her fourth litter.

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  • Picture: OX69368 Jon Lewis

Odelle has brought 45 puppies into the world, all of which have gone on to become guide dogs.

Mrs MacRae said: “Four years ago I saw an advert in the paper looking for brood bitch holders. We had always wanted a dog and it seemed like a good scheme.

“Odelle is owned by Guide Dogs while she is breeding and then she becomes our dog.

“Her last litter was born last month and they’ll be handed over to Guide Dogs soon.

“We always get a photo when they become guide dogs. One of our pups is up in Scotland at the moment tackling mountains with his owner.”

Guide Dogs provides money to pay for medical bills and food while a breeding bitch is with a host family. Mrs MacRae said she is pleased to have been able to help breed guide dogs for four years but Odelle will now get a much-deserved rest.

She said: “She is a very patient, loving dog with a very calm disposition, she looks after her pups and is a loving mum.”


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