An army veteran diagnosed with a psychiatric disability after serving at the height of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland has had her life transformed for the better by a Shetland-bred assistance dog.
Gen Robertson, 47, of Ireland, Bigton, says her border collie Ben has saved her life “at least twice” by giving advance warning of psychotic episodes and reminding her to take medication.
She is grateful to the isles public and local trainers for supporting her and Ben through the psychological assistance qualifications.
“We are two halves of the same person,” said Ms Robertson of her partnership with Ben. “I would not be here if not for him. He has saved my life at least twice and is just absolutely invaluable – he’s an amazing guy.”
Ms Robertson was in her 20s when, in the 1990s, she passed her basic training in the army and joined the General Service Corps.
With the Northern Ireland conflict ongoing, attacks in the British mainland were regarded as a possibility. Although serving near Aldershot, Ms Robertson was placed on terrorist alert.
Her service was cut short when she was medically discharged. Psychotic symptoms had begun to rear their head.
After retraining as a teacher, Ms Robertson, who was living in England at the time, decided to up sticks with her then two-year-old daughter (now 17) and took up a job at Sound Primary School.
“When I moved here I thought everything would get better, sort of a magic wand-type thing, and it would cure itself but unfortunately that didn’t happen,” she said.
During the last four years of her 12-and-a-half-year stay at the school, she faced a near-constant battle to do her job as her condition deteriorated. She would sometimes have to take several weeks off work.
In the end she opted to take redundancy hoping this would act as something of a release.
Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. Her confidence plummeted and she slid into further decline.
“I was in the most dreadful state,” she said. “I had hit an all-time low. People were asking whether the hospital or an institution was an option. Last time I was in hospital I had the most traumatic time and I wanted at all costs to avoid that.”
It was at this point that Ben – and Veterans With Dogs – came on the scene and her life began to change dramatically.
From her very first meeting with Ben, on a visit to Eileen Tait’s farm in Bigton, it was clear they had a special connection.
“Ben detached himself from the litter and came galloping across to me and sat on my foot,” recalled Ms Robertson.
On a return visit a couple of weeks later, the same thing happened, prompting the former teacher to suggest that “he chose me, really, rather than I chose him”.
The next step was to raise money to cover the cost of attending training camps in Devon with Veterans With Dogs – each trip coming in at around £800-£900, factoring in stays in B&Bs to break up the journey.
Veterans With Dogs was set up in 2012 to offer the UK’s first programme designed to train dogs to help veterans with mental health disabilities. In America, such organisations have been running for over 20 years.
To Ms Robertson’s delight, her online fundraising page was met with tremendous support from the isles public.
So, in April 2016, she and Ben made their first trip south to begin the psychological assistance dog qualification.
For the next 18 months, they stuck to a particular routine. After learning techniques in Devon, they returned home to practise them with the help of Shetland Dog
Club trainer Karen Irvine (and, latterly, additional assistance from independent trainer Sally Sanford) before going south again to sit an assessment.
On 12th October 2017, the pair became the first in Scotland (and sixth in the UK) to graduate from the programme.
And Ms Robertson is in no doubt about where credit is due, heaping praise on Ms Irvine and Ms Sanford.
“They have bent over backwards to accommodate us and there’s no way we could have qualified without them – not a chance. Without them we probably would still be on level one but now we have completely graduated,” she said.
Every morning, Ben wakes Ms Robertson up, tells her when it is time to take her daily medication, and makes sure she goes to bed on time.
The nature of bipolar disorder and its treatment means none of these seemingly simple tasks always comes easily. For instance, when Ms Robertson is in a high or manic state, she does not feel tired.
With Ben’s help – delivered through endless amounts of nudging and pawing – psychotic episodes have become far less frequent.
“He gives me up to two hours’ notice that something is wrong. That means I can get home, get my medicine and put our emergency procedures into action,” said Ms Robertson.
Her quality of life has improved enormously since she and Ben enrolled on the course – and she is overjoyed to see the impact it has had on her daughter. She said:
“Nineteen months on, my daughter is now talking about university, which is brilliant. Nineteen months ago she said, ‘I don’t think I will go – I think I will stay and help you’. She was naturally feeling quite protective and feeling that she couldn’t leave me.
“But now I have Ben she is quite happy to go off and go on school trips and now she’s talking about going to university.”
Another welcome consequence is that, for the first time in three years, Ms Roberton is able to think about employment again, having recently completed an application to go on the reserve staff list at the library.
The progress achieved with Ben’s help is remarkable. It is likely to serve as encouragement to people facing similar challenges to explore the possibility of getting an assistance dog, too.
“Everything I have done with Ben is going into a think tank to help us train more dogs to help veterans,” said Ms Robertson.
However, her journey is not finished yet.
“We will need more sponsorship going forward because Ben’s training needs kept up to speed,” she said. “The training and the process is never actually finished.
You never reach a point when you say, ‘OK, there’s nothing more to learn’, because you’re constantly developing more skills and identifying new needs.”
Most immediately, though there is a pressing need to raise £1,000 by April as Ben will need to have his licence revalidated.
Donations can be paid into his Paypal account at firstname.lastname@example.org.