Parkinson's: the story of one man and his dog

After living with Parkinson’s for 10 years, Alan applied for an assistance dog and was matched with Hamlin, a Golden Retriever. Here, Alan shares the story of their formidable partnership.

In the mid-nineties, Alan began to experience anxiety and depression. He was prescribed medication to manage these conditions. Soon afterwards, he began struggling to play his guitar. “The co-ordination in my right arm was becoming very poor. My dad and my grandad both had Parkinson’s, so I had an inkling all my symptoms were linked to the condition, but I was also in denial this was happening to me too.”

When Alan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 36, it came as a relief. “I started discussing all my symptoms with my GP and asked if it could be Parkinson’s, but I was always dismissed because they said I was too young. Other people had told me it was all in my head or to pull myself together. I felt I had to persuade them there was something wrong, so when I was finally diagnosed, it felt like the struggle to convince people was over.”

Over the next 10 years, Alan struggled with his Parkinson’s symptoms, as he explains: “It was much worse mentally than physically. I became very reclusive. At the time, I had a pet German Shepherd. Demmy was a rescue dog and needed lots of attention, so we became inseparable. After she died, I discovered Canine Partners.”

When I first met Hamlin, he was standing in the middle of the training hall...His head was tilted and he looked slightly cautious, even standoffish. But within 10 minutes he was asleep at my feet...!

Making an application

“The organisation is based close to where I live, so I went along to one of their information sessions mainly because I thought it would be interesting. By the end of the talk, one of the trainers said I should apply. My immediate response was, ‘But I’m not in a wheelchair!’ After the trainer explained that assistance dogs can help with a huge range of conditions, I couldn’t get home fast enough to fill in the forms.”

Over the next couple of years, Alan had various review meetings with the staff at Canine Partners, and his specialist and GP were all asked to feed into the review process. In the background, Canine Partners began to assess different dogs to see if their abilities would be a good match for Alan’s needs. Then one day Alan got a call. “I picked up the phone and they said ‘We think we’ve got a dog for you.’ It was very exciting.”

“When I first met Hamlin, he was standing in the middle of the training hall with his Canine Partners coat on. His head was tilted and he looked slightly cautious, even standoffish. But within 10 minutes he was asleep at my feet and I was asking if I could take him home with me that day!”

Although the match was clearly the right one, Hamlin still had to complete his advanced training. Alan explains: “It was really difficult having to leave Hamlin at the centre, but I was really lucky that his advanced trainer lived close by, so she brought him round for visits. Hamlin and I then had to undergo 2 weeks of intensive training at the Canine Partners centre, which was very important, but exhausting!”

Getting to work

When the time came to take Hamlin home, Alan found it more difficult than he’d expected. “I found the first couple of weeks at home was nerve-wracking and I did have a bit of a crisis of confidence," Alan remembers. "But Hamlin is such a lovely, fun, trusting dog, he made it very easy for me.” 

Hamlin can perform a variety of tasks to help Alan throughout the day. “He wakes me up in the morning although sometimes that’s just because he’s hungry, not because I actually need him! I’m obviously completely unmedicated when I wake up, so if I do need help getting out of bed, Hamlin can get a tuggy  a rope with 2 loops at the end of it. I hold onto the loops, and he pulls at the other end. He can pick his food bowl up from the floor, which helps if I can’t bend down. He can load and unload the washing machine and his favourite thing to do is closing the door on the dishwasher with his nose  he absolutely loves it!”

Just knowing Hamlin is with me has made such a huge difference.

“Parkinson’s affects my gait on my right hand side, so I can stumble or shuffle. Hamlin is hugely important when I am out and about then as he acts as a visual cue and can help me walking in a straight line.”

It’s not just physically that Hamlin has helped Alan, but mentally too, as Alan explains: “My confidence has had a real boost. Before I had Hamlin, I would avoid going out as if I did, I would get very anxious and have panic attacks. But now, when I’m out and about, Hamlin is the centre of attention and I am happy to stand in his shadow  I don’t feel self-conscious anymore.” 

As an assistance dog, Hamlin is able to accompany Alan to all his healthcare appointments too. “Everyone is so pleased to see Hamlin, and he can get a bit flirty! My GP was very supportive right from the start, which was brilliant, so we always end up talking about him during appointments. And the nurses at my local surgery love him. My experience has been remarkably positive.”

An unlimited impact

Since his diagnosis, Alan’s symptoms have progressed. “I am learning to live with the fluctuations. My coordination has definitely got worse and my depression and anxiety haven’t gone away, but Hamlin can tell when I’m low. If I’m feeling anxious, he will put his chin on my knee. Or if I start to feel panicky, he will give me a hug by sitting on my lap, and stays there while I calm down. Just knowing Hamlin is with me has made such a huge difference. He’s always on the ball, I can’t move without him knowing what I’m up to!”     

“The impact Hamlin has made on me is immeasurable. He’s an incredible dog and has pretty much changed my life. When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I thought this was the end, my life is over. But 15/16 years later, I am ill, but it’s underlying. I’m feeling very happy then  happy and hopeful.”