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Dogs for the disabled change Hollie's life.

Hollie Byrnes

12:00am 2nd December 2010

Hollie’s high class helper.

Hollie Byrnes’ and her family have an array of animals that would make Dr.  Dolittle go doolally.  The 15 year old shares her home in York with an ancient Greyhound, 3 cats, 15 squealing Guinea Pigs and a tank filled with fish.  Add to the mix two boisterous brothers, an endless carousel of their friends and ever changing girlfriends and a Mum who does more than her fair share of worrying about you.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone could feel alone in such a hectic environment - but sometimes Hollie did.  Lonely, a little bit lost and lacking in the confidence needed to face the world. 

In some ways, Hollie lived the life of a typical teenage girl.  In one major way however, life was very different.  From birth, a genetic condition called ‘Arthrogryposos’ has limited her movement, meaning that Hollie must use a wheelchair.   She must also ask for help with even the simplest everyday task; like closing the bedroom door that most teenagers habitually slam.   Hollie’s reality has been a lifetime of round-the-clock care, with no choice but to depend on others to meet her daily needs.  At an age when most teenagers can barely be kept indoors, Hollie lacked the confidence to venture outside the house.   Taking the family’s Greyhound to a local park was her only taste of independence.  For some reason, time spent alone with her pet dog created a more confident Hollie.



                       Hollie and Hilton



It was this fact that led Hollie’s Mum Sandra to Dogs for the Disabled in 2008.  Sandra longed for a world in which she could sit and worry that Hollie was out, rather than in all night.  Realising the charity could provide a trained assistance dog to be Hollie’s companion and helper, 24 hours a day, Mother and Daughter put in an application.  Fast forward to Summer 2010 and Hollie was facing big changes.    The prospect of beginning a college course in Health and Social Care filled her with dread rather than excitement.  Hollie’s lack of experience with her peers made the thought of getting to know a sea of new faces too much to bear.   Luckily, help arrived in the nick of time and in the form of a lithe yellow Labrador.  Goofy, enthusiastic, eager to please and full of love, Hilton’s help was as high class as the hotel chain of the same name.   Breaking the ice with her new classmates, Hilton gave Hollie the space and confidence to get to know them in her own time.  Hollie loves her course and hopes to become an occupational therapist in the future.  Hilton snores during lectures but, due to his popularity with her fellow students, has more friends than Hollie on Facebook.

As well as boosting Hollie’s confidence and paving the way to new  experiences, Hilton helps with a myriad of more mundane tasks that give Mum some peace and Hollie some much needed independence.  Hilton’s most frequent job is to close Hollie’s dreaded bedroom door, something Sandra would have to do 6/7 times a day at Hollie’s request before Hilton arrived.  Hilton never complains, only to fulfil the role he has been trained to do,  Mum readily admits that she has complained, often, and that Hollie deserved better.  Hilton also helps Hollie dress and undress, pushes the button for pelican crossings and lift buttons when the two are out and about, and puts Hollies purse on the counter at their local shop, looking hopefully at the dog treat section.

Profound changes have occurred not only for Hollie but for Sandra too.  Struggling to contain her emotion, Sandra told us that for many years, guilt nagged away at her that Hollie was missing out on certain aspects of life.  ‘She was doing okay at home’ Sandra said ‘but I was desperately worried that she wasn’t going out with friends and developing interests away from the family.  Ultimately, I feared for her future, she seemed to have little to look forward to.’   Hilton has helped Hollie  develop a real drive for life.   ‘Her outlook is so much more positive now, and her attitude is definitely ‘can do’ rather than ‘do I have to?‘   After years of constant worry, Sandra feels she is letting go a little.   ‘Now Hollie is never alone’ says Sandra ‘and I don’t feel she is as vulnerable as she used to be.’   Hilton has meant a welcome change for the family as a whole  ‘We spend so much more time together now’ says Sandra ‘our whole Summer revolved around visiting new places and having new experiences.   With Hilton on hand to assist Hollie, even in shops and cafes, we could all relax.’

Perhaps the biggest change for a girl who has spent her whole life being cared for, is that Hollie must now be the one who provides care.  Taking responsibility for Hilton’s daily needs has turned Hollie’s focus away from her own disability.  This is her first experience of what it’s like to have someone rely on her, rather than her being reliant on others.   Hollie has joined a local Flyball team to allow Hilton some time, each week, to do something that he loves.  In doing so, she has made many new friends and developed a new interest.  This is just the beginning for the pair as their love for each other continues to open doors.   Before Hilton arrived, Hollie kept her head down, afraid of what life might throw at her.  Now she keeps her head up as Hilton blazes a trail in front of her, his tail waving like a banner.   The first thing strangers see is not a girl in a wheelchair, but a bright and enthusiastic assistance dog proudly wearing his golden jacket.  By the time they look at Hollie they are, in her words, ‘already smiling.’  To Hollie, it now seems that the world is full of smiles.   She now lives in a positive place, filled with positive people, and is positive that the her future will be bright.

If you want to find out more about Dogs for the disabled just head to their website :


Hollie spoke to Louisa - You can listen below:

Audio player placeholder for "hollie byrnes' spoke to Louisa from Minster FM"



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