Andy gets on his bike to help canine friends

Andy completes his training ready at the Heyshott Centre and is ready for the challenge
Andy completes his training ready at the Heyshott Centre and is ready for the challenge

THEY say a dog is man’s best friend, and Andy Cook has spent the past year making this old proverb a reality for some people.

Andy, 48, is the chief executive officer of Heyshott-based charity Canine Partners, which trains dogs to assist people with disabilities.

He has made it his mission in the past 12 months to raise as much money as he can to help give a new lease of life to those who may have lost hope and need a new friend in their life.

So Andy helps them find those friends – but ones with four legs.

An avid cyclist, he signed up for the Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle challenge to help the charity, which relies solely on public donations.

The epic adventure saw Andy riding around 90 miles a day for 11 days.

“It was a great experience. The people we train dogs for are in pain regularly, suffering every day, and they have to go through inconveniences to do all sorts of things.

“So six months’ training really wasn’t a big deal.”

People who have been helped by the charity went along to show their support along the way – some of them came from Chichester, Stedham and Midhurst.

Andy also took part in the Brighton marathon, despite ‘detesting running’.

A member of the Chichester and Graffham tennis clubs, fellow members there talked Andy into the marathon, also donating their own sponsorship to Canine Partners.

And he will end this year having raised £11,500.

“When I left university, I started training dogs – for deaf people, gun dogs for competitions – it stemmed from a childhood love of training pets.

“I then helped set up a charity to train hearing dogs.

“I spotted Canine Partners in 2006 and just thought ‘what a great opportunity and idea’, but it wasn’t helping as many people as it could have.”

Andy and his team have 260 ‘partnerships’ around the country today and each dog is matched with their human partner for the best relationship possible.

While the charity works closely with the armed forces, it seeks to help anyone in need of an assistance dog. Numbers have grown drastically, and are expanding fast, from 12 partnerships in 2005, to the 67 formulated this year.

Another 80 new partnerships are expected for 2014.

“I am the first point of contact for service men and women when they require an assistance dog – we have 16 such personnel going through the application process at the moment,” said Andy.

Next year, he will be doing the London marathon and the Reading half marathon, and his determination has inspired a gang of some 60 people sign up to help.

“Canine Partners has never had 60 people run a marathon to help it before now.

“I’m also toying with the idea of some more bike challenges.

“People are frightened of big sums of money – thousands and thousands of pounds – but every little helps, £5 here, £20 there, even sponsoring a puppy for £1 a week.

“It doesn’t matter whether you walk 5k or jump in a tub of baked beans – it will help someone.

“It is satisfying seeing someone’s life change with the help of our dogs – people transform before your eyes.

“You see them in the early stages crying and it is heartbreaking.

“One of the partnerships going through at the moment is a medic who served with the army in Afghanistan.

“She helped soldiers out there and did so much that it damaged her back. She was in a bad way, very emotional, not thinking to the future.

“Now, she is talking about what she will do when she gets her Canine Partner – and the new career possibilities for her. A lot of the people we help are young – the average age is those in their early 40s, with their lives ahead of them.”

It takes £20,000 to train each dog and for the remainder of its working life, until it retires.

“I thrive on the support we get from people and seeing how that can help others.

“If I can do it, anyone can.”