Canine partner Carmen’s story

Posted 1 month ago in the Volunteers and fundraisers category

When Golden Retriever Carmen was born on 11 June 2017 she had no idea that, to someone living with a physical disability, she was a bundle of hope.

When Golden Retriever Carmen was born on 11 June 2017 she had no idea that, to someone living with a physical disability, she was a bundle of hope and that she would grow up to one day become a life-transforming canine partner assistance dog.

On a warm August day, at just eight weeks old, Carmen was placed in the East Dorset home of a volunteer called Graham.

73-year-old Graham said: “I remember collecting a bundle of fluff named Carmen and taking her home. I was surprised how quickly she settled in and I begun teaching her basic obedience such as learning to sit, lie down, roll over and wait, plus toilet training and walking nicely on a lead.”

Being a Puppy Parent volunteer

Vital Puppy Parent volunteers like Graham, who take care of the charity’s precious puppies during the first year of their training, must be up for the challenges that go along with the many rewards of the role. Canine Partners volunteers are committed, consistent, compassionate and kind, with a good dose of patience to guide and encourage a little pup while it learns the ropes and begins its journey to becoming a future life-changer.

Graham, who helps to socialise and train the puppy in his care for up to 14 months, said: “As with all the reward-based training we do alongside the charity’s specialist Puppy Team trainers, we had short and fun sessions each day. We had many adventures together and Carmen experienced various places she would be likely to encounter as a fully trained assistance dog such as public transport, shops, crowded places, heavy traffic, hospitals, lifts and church services to name a few.”

Moving on to Advanced Training

While it’s a tug on the heartstrings for each Puppy Parent volunteer to see the pup they’ve nurtured move on to the next stage of training at one of the charity’s two national training centres, many describe later seeing the dog transforming someone’s life as the only reward they need.

When Carmen went into Advanced Training, Graham already had another of the charity’s eight week old Golden Retriever puppies waiting at home for him to start the journey all over again with. Graham said: “When I handed Carmen over to her Advanced Trainer, she trotted off confidently with her head held high and tail wagging so I was very proud of her and knew my job was done. The reward of being Carmen’s Puppy Parent was the sense of achievement and being part of the Canine Partners team working towards her becoming a successful assistance dog.”

Being partnered with Wendy

After taking part in the charity’s specialist Advanced Training programme, Carmen was successfully matched with Wendy Hilling, who was on the charity’s waiting list for an assistance dog.

Wendy has a rare genetic condition called Dystrophic Recessive Epidermolysis Bullosa, which causes open wounds and blisters at the slightest touch. It affects her from the inside out, with her skin easily coming off and scarring from the trauma.

71-year-old Wendy, from Lancashire, said: “I had previously had a canine partner called Edward, lovingly known as Teddy, but when he retired and became my pet dog I knew I couldn’t manage without another assistance dog and I could not bear to lose my independence again.”

Carmen is trained to help Wendy get undressed and dressed, will help to load and unload the washing machine and will also hand a purse or credit card to the cashier in shops, alongside other tasks which help Wendy to avoid trauma to her skin. Carmen has even learnt to wake up Wendy’s husband if she stops breathing in the night – something which Canine Partners did not teach but she has instead learnt the cues for due to the pair’s strong bond.

Wendy, who was matched with Carmen in August 2019, said: “Carmen is my hands and anything I need she does for me. I have a shrunken gullet due to internal scarring, which means I can not bend over as the acid reflux will blister my throat causing more problems swallowing, so Carmen picks up anything I drop – often without being asked!”

The Covid-19 pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Wendy was classed as high risk and had to shield. Sadly, during the first lockdown in 2020, her pet dog Teddy passed away.

Wendy said: “Not only could we not go to the vets with Teddy because of the Covid-19 restrictions but I am unable to get upset or cry as it affects my swallowing and breathing. I fell into the deepest black hole of grief and I am sure I could never of got through losing Teddy, and losing a close family member shortly afterwards, without Carmen and needing to focus on her.”

Training dogs like Carmen

Carmen is one of over 430 working canine partner assistance dogs in the UK today, all of which had a Puppy Parent volunteer help to give them the best start in life.

Graham, who is currently looking fter his 8th puppy for the charity, said: “When I see photos of Carmen working it makes me very proud and I am reminded of what a positive difference these amazing dogs make to people’s lives, which inspires me to do it again with another puppy.”

To transform a puppy, and a person living with a physical disability’s life too, it takes someone special. Could it be you?

You can help raise the UK’s next generation of assistance dogs. To find out more about becoming a Puppy Parent volunteer, please visit


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