‘He’s an extension of my soul’: Meet Verlin the adorable Labrador who trans-formed one teacher’s life
It is 6.30am on a frosty Monday in November and Verlin the black Labrador is pottering around the bedroom of Fiona Airey’s cosy barn conversion near Ashford, Kent, helping her to get dressed. ‘Socks, Verlin,’ she says. ‘Now that,’ she points to a T-shirt, and he passes them to her, then lets Fiona lean on him as she hauls herself to her feet. He has been on the go since 6am when, after a cuddle with Fiona, he helped her make a cup of coffee (picking up a tea towel when she dropped it) and dug out her winter boots from the stair cupboard. Later, while Fiona, who works as a primary school teacher, explains long division to her year six class, Verlin will lie in the corner under a fluffy red blanket – barely glancing at the 30 children, nor they at him – but emerging now and then to open the storeroom door for her (there is a tennis ball attached to the handle so he can tug it with his teeth). He also tidies away marker pens and pencils when she drops them, nimble and unobtrusive as a Wimbledon ballboy.
How much does Verlin mean to you? I ask her. Without pausing to consider the question, she says, ‘Verlin is my absolute, he’s my everything. He just knows what I need, I don’t have to ask. Sometimes I look at him and think he’s an extension of my soul… Last Sunday morning I wanted to give him a break, so I left him at home to play and went to Waitrose to meet my dad. But without him I feel so vulnerable. I look for this missing part of me.’ Fiona, who is 45, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective-tissue disorder that affects her internal organs as well as her movement, which means she often drops things, stumbles easily and is in chronic pain. She was diagnosed at 38, but has had the symptoms most of her life, and before Verlin came to live with her and her son Jake, now 20, she dislocated her shoulder or wrist most days – often while doing simple chores like pulling back her duvet or turning a door handle. Her pain level was, she recalls, a steady seven-and-a-half out of 10. These days, it is a more manageable five, and she estimates that the number of times she dislocates a limb has been reduced by 95 per cent, thanks mainly to Verlin, who fetches, carries, tidies up and protects her by walking on her left, her weaker side, shielding her from children charging around the playground and from commuters jostling her on the Tube when she travels to London for hospital appointments.
‘He can open the washing machine door with his mouth and pass the wet laundry up to me,’ she says. ‘I’ve just got to be careful that he doesn’t drag the clean sheets over the lawn.’ Verlin and Fiona were introduced three years ago by the charity Canine Partners, a human-to-animal matchmaking service that has paired 750 assistance dogs (mostly Labradors and golden retrievers) with people suffering from all sorts of disabilities, including cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, and has 180 people on its waiting list. The dogs are trained from a young age, initially at the home of a ‘puppy parent’ (a volunteer trainer), usually for just over a year, and later are given advanced training for four months at one of the charity’s two training centres. Then they work until their retirement age of 12. Fiona first heard about the charity in 2012 after watching a report on the BBC’s The One Show. ‘My friend phoned me and said, “There’s a lady on TV with your condition and she’s got a dog to help her.”’
Deep down, though, she dismissed the idea because she considered herself ‘not disabled enough’. She walked with a stick, rather than using a wheelchair, she had only been officially diagnosed two years earlier, and she was struggling to come to terms with thinking of herself as disabled, especially having been active all her life. Raised in the Oxfordshire town of Banbury and later in Zimbabwe, where she moved with her parents, sister and brother for her father’s work shortly after it became independent, Fiona knew early on that her body was more flexible than others. ‘I’d freak people out by bending my elbows backwards or touching my thumb against the back of my arm,’ she recalls. ‘They would say, “Oh you’re just double-jointed.”’ As a result of this flexibility and partly because her mother had dreamed of becoming a dancer, Fiona began taking ballet lessons when she was just two, and excelled. She returned to the UK and boarded for a spell at Elmhurst School for Dance, a prestigious classical ballet school, and later joined The National Ballet of Zimbabwe, dancing through her many injuries, spine problems and hip pain.
‘With ballet the discipline is phenomenal. They train you almost like mini soldiers,’ she says. ‘I remember a consultant in Zimbabwe looking at my spine and saying, “If you don’t stop you might end up in a wheelchair when you’re older.” But I said, “I’ll be fine.” I thought I was doing it for my art.’ Looking back, she suspects the intense training exacerbated her condition. At 19 her career was cut short when she stepped awkwardly off a pavement and felt a shooting pain up her spine. ‘It was so terrible I couldn’t walk. [The doctors] said, “It’s muscle strain.” I kept saying, “I’ve danced for long enough I know the difference between a muscle strain and something being seriously wrong.” I remembered that doctor’s warning from years earlier and I thought, “Actually, walking is more important.” So I quit ballet.’ Yet, throughout her 20s and 30s, she continued to endure injury after injury; before one could heal, another would emerge. ‘Even if I was standing up talking to someone for five minutes, the pain levels would start going up,’ she recalls. ‘I was shuffling around, I could never pick my feet up. My confidence just nosedived. It got to the point where I stopped going out, unless my sister Karen was with me, and I withdrew more and more.’
By then she had trained as a teacher and was worried she might be forced to give up the career she loved, so she looked to Canine Partners for help. The process was a rigorous one: after sharing her medical history and an occupational health assessment, she travelled to a training centre in Heyshott, West Sussex, to work with four assistance dogs for 10-minute spells each, so they could identify the sort of skills the dog would need. ‘I needed a tall dog, as I’m 5ft 9in. And then there was my job being with children, and the practicalities of grooming with my wrist being weak. Golden retrievers have long coats.’ But 18 months later, the charity found a match. ‘Everyone wants that magic call,’ recalls Fiona. ‘I was so excited. Then I went to meet him, and he came bounding in and… I knew straight away.’ She turns to Verlin, who gazes adoringly at her while she speaks. ‘Didn’t I, Verly? He came straight up to me and put his head under my armpit, and was like, “Love me, love me, love me.” But Rebekah [his advanced trainer] turned to me and said, “Don’t be fooled. When he works he is so sensible.”’
Verlin’s on- and off-duty personalities remain utterly different. One moment he is leaping around Fiona’s kitchen, jumping up to greet me, licking my hand, mauling a slipper and chewing my Dictaphone with a cheeky look in his eye – ‘He’s a real jester sometimes,’ says Fiona – and the next he is wearing his uniform, a Canine Partners jacket, and is dutiful, level-headed, barely wagging his tail. ‘It’s lovely that his work doesn’t squish out his bouncy personality,’ says Fiona. Fiona says that he can now sense exactly when he is on-duty without prompting. During her weekly staff meeting, for example, he often detects when the 60 minutes is up. ‘At 4.55pm he’ll have a big yawn and a stretch and start being silly. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious and it means meetings never overrun. ‘He tidies up my classroom too and if I go to another, messier class, he is hot-wired to say, “I need to tidy here!” Sometimes, I have to stop him. And when we go to hospital in London he’s fantastic. He’ll trot over and press the button to call the lift. I haven’t taught him the buttons for different floors yet but I’m sure I could.’
Then there is the independence he allows her – these days she is less reliant on Jake, something that had made her uncomfortable having helped to care for her own mother, who suffered from a similar (though undiagnosed) condition. ‘I know what it’s like to be a child to somebody who is constantly ill. I never wanted that for my son. Now he can head off to London and see his girlfriend, and knows that I’m safe and that if I fell over and couldn’t reach the phone to call for help, Verlin would get it.’ As for the future, Fiona hopes to train to become a deputy headteacher; something she says she probably couldn’t do without him. ‘Before, the world was getting smaller, but now he pushes barriers back.’ After a pause she adds, ‘It [her body] will degenerate, and my spine will get worse. I try not to think about those things because the more I can ignore it and think it’s not happening… ‘Given the level of pain I’m constantly in, there is no reason I would want to get up and go for a walk around a field in the morning. But I have to go for Verlin. He needs three walks a day, so he’s like my physical therapist. He keeps me healthy, and gives me a purpose.’ With that, the lunchtime bell rings and Verlin switches to off-duty mode – he leaps up, rests his paws softly in Fiona’s lap and plants a wet kiss on her face.