“My condition can make my world quite dark but Sheila brings me brightness. She really is a ‘wonder dog’ and with her help I’m looking forward to a more independent future.”
Imagine if, at the age of 16, just before your GCSEs, you were told that the reason your joints were dislocating and the pain you experienced every day was because you had a lifelong degenerative condition?
“I’ve had pain all my life and as a child, I’d always just assumed that other people were the same,” says Zoe Bateman, 25, from Reading.
While her eventual diagnosis of hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was freeing, Zoe was also terrified because she didn’t know what else was going to happen to her. “Gradually, I moved from crutches into a wheelchair and lost sight of ‘me’. Things got a bit dark.”
Despite her condition worsening, Zoe’s determination saw her going to University and completing a degree in Archaeology. “I could only manage to attend one lecture a week for two hours because my pain was so bad and my energy was so depleted,” she recalls.
One day, quite by chance, Zoe watched a programme on Assistance Dogs which left her in no doubt that this was something that could really help her.
After applying to Dogs for Good, Zoe was invited to an Information Day at the charity’s Training Centre. “Both mum and dad came with me and we were all really impressed with everything. Dad said to me that I’d be stupid not to go for it… I wasn’t going to argue with him!”
Zoe knew there might be a lengthy wait until a potential match was found but kept on researching and keeping herself informed. Then one Friday morning, everything changed. “It was a phone call that changed my life. They’d found a potential match and she was called Sheila.”
Dogs for Good arranged for a matching visit to see how they got on and Zoe remembers that the moment Sheila walked through the door, she fell in love. “She’s such a friendly, kind girl and we clicked instantly.”
Dogs for Good agreed and Zoe was asked if she’d like to go ahead with Sheila. “There was nothing they could say that would make me not want her,” says Zoe.
Working with Instructor Kim, Zoe and Sheila worked on learning how to understand each other and before too long, Sheila and Zoe were going out on walks alone together. “It was so incredible to be out, enjoying myself with my beautiful, kind girl, without a ‘responsible adult’ alongside.”
Sheila’s training means that she can help Zoe with practical tasks such as picking up dropped items such as keys, phone and purse, pushing down the footplates on Zoe’s wheelchair, opening doors and also helping with the laundry by picking up clothes and putting them in the laundry basket. She also helps Zoe with getting dressed and this has brought her another, unexpected freedom.
“Previously, I would wear clothes that were fairly functional and were a few sizes too big for me because it’s tricky getting dressed when you’re in a wheelchair. But now, because Sheila can help me, I’m wearing dresses that fit and suit me – they might have a few teeth marks in the back of the hem but that doesn’t matter because I sit on that bit anyway!” she laughs.
Because of their deep bond, Sheila is very tuned in to Zoe and has reduced her panic attacks in both frequency and severity and also helps bring her round when she faints. “Sheila’s not been trained to do this, she just instinctively does it to comfort me and the feel of her warm breath on my arm takes away all the fear,” Zoe says.
Zoe has also made more friends because she can now connect more with the outside world and this has brought her even more confidence. She’s even created an Instragram account called ‘sheilathewonderdog’ where she regularly posts stories of their adventures. “I thought long and hard about doing it but I had an overwhelming desire to help other people who might be in the same situation as me. Sharing Sheila with them will, I hope, show people how amazing assistance dogs are.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Zoe is that with Sheila by her side, she’s looking into retraining and doing something with her degree. “Obviously, I can’t do the practical side of it as most dig sites are inaccessible but what I could do is look at a teaching role to use the skills and knowledge I’ve got.”
Zoe says that Sheila has “enabled me to be more myself and have a future. She brings brightness, happiness and fun into my life. She’s incredible.“
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