Ellie is one of many assistance dogs who make life so much easier for their partners with serious disabilities

Factfile: Canine Partners

  • Dogs are carefully matched to the applicants’ needs and lifestyle, no matter how challenging, learning tasks and commands that will be of most use in that partnership
  • Dogs help with everyday tasks such as opening and shutting doors, unloading the washing machine, picking up dropped items, pressing buttons and switches and getting help in an emergency
  • A canine partner often reduces the need for a carer, thus giving greater independence and confidence to the person with a disability
  • Average age of applicants is 44
  • Most common disability of Canine Partners’ clients is multiple sclerosis


Ellie at work, retrieving a card from the cash machine.

Ellie at work, retrieving a card from the cash machine.

As we go out and about during our daily lives, the most usual assistance dog we are likely to see will be a Guide Dog faithfully leading a blind person along crowded pavements, around shops and across busy roads. But there are other dogs that provide different kinds of help for people with various needs.

Five-year-old Ellie, a Labrador, is one such dog. She is a canine partner who has helped Debbie Schwartz live with mitochondrial disease since they were brought together in May 2013. Now, two years on and the pair would not be separated.

Debbie has a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder which meant that, by the age of 25, she found that she was unemployable

She explained: “My confidence was at an all-time low, as everyday tasks were making me feel frustrated and stupid – things that I had been able to do before without thinking, I could no longer do. I felt like I had lost all control over my life; it all seemed pointless and was too much effort.”

This all changed when Debbie saw a documentary on television featuring Canine Partners.

“I watched in awe at what the dogs were able to do, and considered the possibilities open to me if I was to have such a dog.  I waited over a year to apply, with all different doubts and concerns stopping me from sending in the form.” These included ‘am I disabled enough?’, ‘there are people more worthy’, ‘would I be able to take care of a dog?’

“Despite the fact it took so long to send off the form, the simple act of completing it changed my mindset – I had chosen to live, and to move forward, knowing that to do so I’d have to adapt and Canine Partners was to be my master plan, helping me through this process,” she said.

It took more than a year for Debbie to be matched with Ellie.

Debbie Schwarz with Ellie, her Canine Partner.

Debbie Schwarz with Ellie, her Canine Partner.

She recalled: “I was so anxious meeting her for the first time, but the worry was for nothing. Ellie walked straight up to me and placed her head in my lap. It was love at first sight!  Who could resist her ginger eyelashes?

“She is my perfect match, my perfect partner.  She is the calming influence in my life, being so relaxed and often working to her own time, meaning I have to slow down.  This allows me to take my time and do things more safely. That’s not to say she is always calm; she has a mischievous side and an infectious sense of fun.  She loves to please and, as such, performs her tasks with such a zest and enthusiasm that you can’t help but smile.  Being so intelligent she understands when there is an urgency and acts accordingly, often doing tasks during these times that she hasn’t specifically been trained to do. I find her more remarkable every day.”

Ellie does many tasks on a daily basis that have allowed Debbie to reduce the amount of care she requires.

“She fetches the mail, the phone and anything that I drop and brings it to me; she can open and close doors; turn on and off light switches; help me by undressing me or bringing me a towel; and pulling me into a sitting position from a lying position. She can even help with the washing by putting the clothes in the machine, then taking them out and giving them to me. If I have fallen or am unwell in the home, she can pull the emergency chord, or open the door and go to get help.

“When shopping Ellie can take an item off the shelf in a shop and give it to me, she can also hand a purse to the cashier. Outside at the ATM she can take out my card, money and receipt. She is so clever!

“She does many more subtle tasks that allow me to go about my day with minimal assistance, including flushing the toilet and putting her food bowl in the sink. However, the most special thing that she offers me is her companionship and complete trust.”

Debbie said that Ellie has given her a sense of independence, dignity and happiness in place of the feelings of isolation and loneliness which overwhelmed her before.

She said: “Ellie enables me to be me. She is a great leveller, which has allowed me to feel accepted and to be a participant once more. I no longer sit and wait, I get out there and interact; something I never had the confidence to do before this wonderful girl came into my life.”

Speaking of the Canine Partners charity, Debbie added: “I must thank everyone involved in Elle’s upbringing and training; to all of her puppy parents, foster parents and her advanced trainer.  Without dedicated people like these, Canine Partners would not be possible and I would not have been given this amazing opportunity.  Their sacrifice and hard work has given me both a life and a best friend – and for this there are no words I can say to express my gratitude.”


About Canine Partners

  • Founded in the UK in 1990. (Many other countries have similar programmes)
  • Aims to train dogs to meet the needs of people with the most complex disabilities including members of HM Armed Forces
  • Is a member of COBSEO, the Confederation of Service Charities, Veterans Scotland and Assistance Dogs International
  • Is a member of Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) the overarching organisation that checks on standards, for training, behaviour and welfare of the dogs, and the partnerships
  • Specifies the sponsorship cost of a canine partner from selection as an eight-week-old puppy to the end of its working life at 12 years of age = £20,000. That’s £4.56 a day
  • Receives no government funding and relies solely on public donations and gifts in Wills
  • Has two training centres – one in Heyshott near Midhurst, West Sussex; and one in Osgathorpe, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire
  • Receives around 1,000 requests for application packs each year
  • Retains ‘ownership’ of the dogs to ensure welfare and peace of mind for the partners should the partners’ health decline; partners pay a nominal fee of £1 for custodianship of the dog once they are paired
  • Provides ongoing regular home visits and telephone support and advice from our network of aftercare assistants for the lifetime of each partnership


Canine Partners, UK



Assistance dogs in other countries





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