Growing up with a serious illness is lonely. Always a clumsy child, by the age of nine I was a regular in A&E with sprains and fractures.
I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS), a group of conditions that affect connective tissues and cause problems with tendons, ligaments, bones and internal organs. I spent most of my first year of secondary school in hospital and, as my EDS worsened, life became a struggle. My handwriting, once neat, was illegible, as I couldn’t grip the pencil, and I’d wake in the morning to find my hip and shoulder joints had dislocated; I had to be trained to pop them back in. By the time I was 12, I was using a wheelchair for longer distances.
I felt isolated and, often, overwhelmed. Frightened, too, as the doctors couldn’t predict how my condition would progress. There was, however, one firm piece of advice they gave us over the years: “get a dog”.
‘My mum was terrified of dogs’
I’d pined for a dog since I was a little girl and now more than ever; as an only child, I was often ill and lonely at home. My mum, Karen, was terrified of dogs, though – all animals, in fact. When she was a baby in a pram, a deer stuck its head in and her fear probably stemmed from that, but it was very real. If a dog came close, she’d panic.
Two years ago, some friends got a puppy and I felt so envious, I cried, which I normally try to fight. But there was nothing positive in our lives, just my illness, going on and on. So I was amazed when Mum not only visited the friends knowing that the pup was there, but picked her up. Clearly terrified, she made herself stroke her. Then she smiled.
A few weeks later, Mum announced that our friend’s puppy was spending the day with us as a trial run for getting one of our own. Shocked but elated, I logged on to the internet to research dog breeds.
‘A focus away from my illness’
In February 2016, we drove to meet a female poodle/Shih Tzu puppy I’d already decided to
call Poppy. As I sat on the breeder’s settee, Poppy hopped on to my lap and licked my face. There was an immediate connection.
Finally having a puppy was surreal but just as wonderful as I’d anticipated. Poppy was a character – the vet laughingly warned us that we had our hands full – and more than just a pretty face.
By 10 weeks old I’d trained her to sit, stay and lie down. Now she gets my pyjamas, opens and closes doors and fetches my phone if I fall.
Training Poppy gives me a focus away from my illness. When she looks up at me, awaiting her next instruction, I feel a tremendous sense of achievement, on my part and hers.
‘She’s my best friend’
I don’t want Poppy to be my assistance dog, though. She’s my best friend, like a little sister. As my assistance dog, she’d have to focus solely on me when we’re out, but she loves to flirt, greeting everybody we meet. So I’m training her as a therapy dog to go into hospitals, old people’s homes and hospices. She’ll thrive on the attention and I’ll feel helpful instead of helpless, part of the world.
I’ve bought her a pink harness bearing the words “In Training” and when she wears it she knows we’re working. Her training is going well apart from one aspect: asking permission before bounding up to people. When I remove Poppy’s harness she shakes herself as if she’s Superdog returning to normal life, like Superman popping into a phone booth. She’s always a hero, though.
Since her arrival I’ve had to leave school, as it was too tiring. I now study at home. Without Poppy, I’d be lonely. When Mum, Dad and I hug, Poppy barges into the middle and that’s just right. She’s the warm, furry heart at the centre of our family and she has made us complete.
“Every time Lauren pleaded for a dog and then apologised, saying she knew it was impossible, the guilt was overwhelming. I’m still scared of other dogs and can’t take Poppy to the park – Pete’s her main walker – but I adore her. We’ll get home from a difficult hospital appointment and Poppy will bounce up, demanding attention before we’ve taken our coats off. We’ll stop and play and, for that moment, whatever else is happening, we’re lost in the immediacy of Poppy’s world. That escape, however brief, is a gift.”
As told to Jane Common