The Emily Dogs Project in west Cork trains service dogs for people with a range of disabilities.
Elizabeth Walsh was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1988, and found herself increasingly confined to a wheelchair, only two months after she had married her boyfriend Jim.
Help arrived in the form of their cocker spaniel pup Emily, who, without any encouragement began to help out around the house, beginning with the laundry. According to Elizabeth,
Emily just trained herself.
Sadly Emily died prematurely but the experience inspired her owner to learn more about service dogs for people with disabilities. Elizabeth Walsh went back to college and recently graduated from the University of Southampton with a diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour.
Emily Dogs Ireland is a charity providing assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Elizabeth and her husband Jim now have two adult service dogs and are training a ten week old pup in their West Cork home.
Training a service dog costs €9000 and takes six months. When they arrive at their new homes, the four legged helpers can perform many different tasks such as opening a door, picking up items on the floor, loading and unloading a washing machine and acting as a walking aid.
The dogs are also trained to recognise a specific signal or gesture to raise the alarm in the case of an emergency.
Unfortunately Ireland is lagging behind in terms of provision of assistance dogs for the disabled, in contrast to the United States, Britain and our European neighbours. Elizabeth Walsh says the sheer number of associations for service dogs internationally is evidence of how well they work,
They would not exist if they did not work and if they were not financially feasible.
After seven years of campaigning for a dedicated training site for assistance dogs, Elizabeth and Jim Walsh now face the task of raising €250,000 to fund it, as the Department of the Environment has granted initial approval for a site in Courtmacsherry.
Ultimately the provision of a service dog to a person with a disability is about dignity,
The dignity to make choices, the dignity to have the right to make choices...everyone is entitled to have dignity.
An RTÉ News report broadcast on 28 June 2004. The reporter is Paul Maguire.