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KELSEY SHERIDAN is one of the 1.5 million people who have been advised to stay home and shield themselves during the pandemic. But she’s not alone – and she’s getting plenty of help . . . from red fox Labrador, Hamble. Here’s her story …

I HAVE had chronic fatigue syndrome since a very young age and I began missing school regularly at the age of 11, and I’ve struggled to remain in education ever since.

I grew up in France, where I had a very understanding doctor but he was unable to help me. After moving to the UK and getting a part time job, my health declined very rapidly – I was diagnosed in January, came home on crutches in May and was wheelchair bound by June.

This had a drastic effect on my life. I had been a competitive climber before, which had always been part of my plans for the future. I was studying music and wanted to perform on stage, but I lost all my confidence.

I struggled getting out by myself and I always felt like people were wondering what I was doing out alone. All the small day-to-day tasks became more and more difficult for me to manage, and I felt completely abandoned by my doctors.

I had very few friends on my university course and I made even fewer as I was scared to approach anyone. I would just go straight home whenever I didn’t have to be in a lecture.

I lost the ability to climb, meaning I lost my emotional and physical outlet. I became quite depressed and struggled to remain positive about my future.

I then made my first real friends who gave me a desire to regain control of my life. I searched the internet for help, focusing on regaining the independence I would need to return to university. That was when I came across the Canine Partners website for the first time.

I knew that after university I wouldn’t want to move back in with my parents, but that didn’t look possible without the adapted room and equipment I had in my student accommodation. I was scared about the idea of being alone and having no help.

I decided to apply for a Canine Partner in the summer before my second year at university. I was on the waiting list for almost exactly three years.

During that time, I graduated from university despite everything and took the plunge in renting my own place in Manchester. I was away from my family but near to the friends that got me through such a difficult time. That summer I received the call to say they had found a match for me.

From day one Hamble was a huge help. I remember during our first week together on the Onsite Training Course I couldn’t quite reach my pyjamas and without me needing to ask she just passed them to me. I just started crying! Before heading home she had

already figured out that I always ask for slippers when I’m getting out of bed and starts handing them to me before I’ve finished asking – she still does that to this day.

From the moment I wake up, she helps with every single thing I do. She’s given me the energy and confidence to return to social activities, get a part time job and even return to paraclimbing! I went on a camping trip just after we were partnered and I had the confidence to be on my own and we explored so many places. Hamble has always slept on my feet while I play piano and she did the same when I played the piano in these places.

Hamble adapted so quickly to my life and all the things I was able to add to it. She settled down during concert band rehearsals, even sleeping through the booming timpanis.

I got a job working on a till and she took to it so well – from the very first shift she settled onto her bed underneath the till. I have a badge explaining that I need an assistance dog for medical reasons but most people never even know she’s there!

Most importantly for me was that Hamble was with me as I attempted to return to the world of climbing. I cannot use my lower legs but I am able to climb on my knees with the help of kneepads. I was so scared that I wouldn’t even make it off the ground and would have to grieve this loss again, but I did so much better than I could have ever imagined.

She gives me the confidence to try things just by being there. People often expect to see her do a task when they glance at her and wonder why she needs to be there. But I always try to emphasise that the important thing is that she is there when I need her.

Occasionally, I drop one of my crutches and have to balance on the other. When I’m alone my only option is to allow myself to fall but with Hamble she can just pick up the dropped crutch and hand it to me. It makes the experience just a small inconvenience. I have more confidence now than I had before I lost the ability to walk as Hamble is always there to get me through any situation.

I’ve been shielding now for 12 weeks. My conditions are not fully understood yet but research points towards an autoimmune disorder.

It’s meant that I had to resign from my job as it is customer facing. It was a disappointing, but I am very fearful of how the virus could affect me.

My friends are also shielding and my family live too far away to offer practical help. The lockdown has made it very difficult for me to access any practical or emotional support.

Hamble has always been a fast learner and picks up new routines almost immediately, so she has been a huge help. She has learnt the locations of all the named items I may need, going upstairs or downstairs to fetch them for me, too.

We spend a lot of time going out for walks as we now have wheelchair friendly walks nearby. She has been my only practical and emotional support during these exceptional circumstances and I couldn’t do it without her. She has been a bigger support than ever and I trust her now more than ever.

Hamble is my rock. She keeps me going. She is my partner and I can’t see my current life or my future without her in it. She is loved by my close friends and a part of all of our plans now – we often go for dog walks all together. She’s really allowed me to reclaim my life and my future and I could never repay her or Canine Partners for that.”

www.caninepartners.org.uk