This is Shani, a dog who, thanks to the Guide Dogs buddy dog scheme, has helped bring a little girl with complex needs out of her shell.
Black Labrador/retriever cross Shani, two, was in training to be a guide dog, but didn’t quite make the cut because she couldn’t bear to wear the necessary harness.
Rather than send her to live with just any family, Shani was rehomed as a buddy dog and sent to live with Nancy Cawood and her sister, Martha, 13, twin brother Peter, 11, and parents, Francesca, 44, and Will, 45.
Nancy has autism and Cohen’s Syndrome (a developmental condition), as well as retinal dystrophy (a degenerative visual impairment), which made her eligible for the buddy dog scheme.
Before Shani went to live with the family in their Shropshire home, Nancy was shy, quiet and reserved.
But from the time she met Shani during an ‘experience session’ to test the waters, Nancy started to come out of her shell, playing with the dog and asking questions, such as how often she’d need to brush Shani’s teeth.
When asked about the impact Shani has had on the family, Francesca, who is Nancy’s carer full-time, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘For Nancy, it’s just been better than we could have expected.
‘She has always been interested in animals, particularly dogs, but she’s taken quite a sort of arm’s length approach to them.
‘But with Shani, she went quickly from arm’s length, to touching with her fingertips to just lying on the floor and cuddling with her.
‘That’s because Shani has built up an amazing relationship of trust with her.
‘It’s great for her confidence when we’re out and about.
‘She’s non-verbal, but she can manage to say “my Shani” and “my doggy” to anyone that remotely slows down to look at our little family – she likes to introduce her.’
Francesca adds that there have been some speech therapy benefits to having Shani around, saying that Nancy is keen to teach her buddy tricks like how to sit, stay and lie down.
These kind and caring canines are rehomed with young children with seeing impairments, who don’t necessarily need a guide dog, but would benefit greatly from having a buddy to help them out of their shells and give them a sense of responsibility.
These aren’t working dogs, they’re pets and companions – which means they won’t have to retire like guide dogs do when they’re not able to perform their duties perfectly anymore.
Even though buddy dogs are still technically owned by Guide Dogs – to ensure the organisation can maintain a proper duty of care to the animals – all being well, Shani should be with the Cawoods for the rest of her life.
‘Shani just needs to continue being gorgeous,’ says Francesca, ‘and she can do that and see her years out with us.’
Before she was told about the buddy dog scheme, Francesca and Will thought they’d never be able to get a dog.
‘Our life is really complicated,’ explains Francesca.
‘Nancy has not only got her visual impairment, which is what’s made her eligible for the [buddy dog] scheme, but she’s also got quite a severe learning disability.
‘We’ve worked through whether we could get a puppy, or could we get a rescue dog, and the conclusion each time was that you just don’t know what you’re getting until it’s too late, and then you’re stuck with a dog that could have the wrong temperament and could be intolerant or impatient with Nancy.’
She adds that, since Shani spent two years training with the Guide Dogs, she’s not only had the elementary training that a dog needs, but she’s also had high level obedience training – thus making her an ideal choice for a family like theirs.
‘It was a really it’s a really good place for Shani to end up,’ she says.
‘A guide dog career wasn’t for her, it was decided, but she had so many other skills and so many other kinds of personality traits that would make her suitable for another vulnerable person.’
Shani has only been with the Cawoods since just before Easter, but Francesca says the dog ‘immediately became part of the family.’
She adds: ‘I cleared the decks in my diary, thinking we were going to have a really anxious dog for a week because we hadn’t met her before.
‘But honestly, as Natalie [a canine assisted partnership specialist] shut the door, having spent the morning with us, the dog was just like: “Well, This is cool. What are we going to do this afternoon?”‘
It isn’t just Nancy who’s bonded with Shani.
Her big sister Martha enjoys training Shani with a dog agility set in their back garden, while Peter, who loves football, will kick the ball around with her.
As for Francesca and Will, having to walk Shani has ensured that they have a reason to go outside for an hour and take some time away from ‘all the chaos of family life.’.
Sweet Shani also helps calm Francesca’s father, also called Peter, who has vascular dementia.
Because he can sometimes be stressed in group settings, Peter had stopped coming to family functions, but Shani changed all that.
Francesca says: ‘The calmness that transcends him when the dog is around – it’s quite remarkable.
‘I’m sure Shani has worked out that he’s another vulnerable person, and she will go to him and sit on his feet and lean heavily against his shins.
‘She’s not trained to do that. That’s just her temperament.
‘And then everything’s okay, he’s not so anxious, and he’s relaxed.’
Now, Francesca wants to help spread the word that buddy dogs are an option for children with visual impairments.
She says: ‘If families are minded towards having a family pet, this is a really good avenue to pursue.
‘Guide Dogs are great at exploring it properly with you, because it’s a really big deal.
‘It’s a rigorous process for the right reasons for everybody involved – for the dog, for you, and for guide dogs as an organisation.
‘And the end of it for us has been just complete joy. We’ve got this super family pet and I can just heartily recommend it to anybody else.’
She adds: ‘Shani s just so friendly and biddable.
‘Really, all your doggy dreams come true, and she’s perfect for us.’
If you’re interested in Guide Dog’s buddy dog scheme, you can check their website for more information.
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