The Dodd-Moore family from Bedlington in Northumberland, are marking their first Christmas with Guide Dogs buddy dog, Buddy, who they say has transformed their lives since he was partnered with five year old JJ.
JJ and his family - Mum Nicole, Dad Jon, and sisters Scarlett and Mia, welcomed Buddy into their lives at the end of 2022. Nicole got in touch with Guide Dogs, which has a community centre in Newcastle, for support after she started thinking about JJ’s future living with sight loss. She came across the Buddy Dog service while researching the criteria for applying for a guide dog.
Buddy dogs are dogs that have been given a career change because life as a guide dog wasn’t quite right for them. As a buddy dog, they are partnered with a child living with sight loss. By helping to develop their self-confidence, improve relationships and build a greater sense of trust, these dogs can have a hugely positive effect on a child’s wellbeing – and their family, too.
Nicole said: “JJ has cerebral palsy as well as having a vision impairment. He’s also non-verbal and he uses a wheelchair – so it’s hard to know while he’s still young whether he would meet the criteria for applying for a guide dog when he’s older.
“While browsing the Guide Dogs website, I came across the Buddy Dog Service – it was amazing to see all the pictures and videos of other children with their buddy dogs and pretty much immediately I thought ‘I have to go for it.’ I just knew it was something that would benefit not just JJ, but the whole family.
“Myself and my daughters do suffer from anxiety at times, and although our family didn’t have much experience of dogs, or at times were a bit nervous around them, I could see the difference that a buddy dog might make in helping us get out and about and have a positive impact on our mental health.”
Nicole and the family took part in an experience day with Guide Dogs, where they were talked through the Buddy Dog service in more detail and introduced to some dogs. Not long after, they received a call about the aptly named Buddy, a German Shepherd, who had been withdrawn from guide dog training because he simply wasn’t suited to it, but still had many amazing qualities that gave him the potential to be the perfect buddy dog for a child with sight loss.
“The kids absolutely loved the experience day and we found it so useful too. When we received the call about Buddy being a potential match for JJ, I have to admit that Jon and I were a little sceptical about a German Shepherd at first – we’re not dog experts and they do have a reputation, which we know now is completely unfounded! And as soon as Buddy walked into the house, all those worries went away,” Nicole said.
Buddy came into the lives of the Dodd-Moores at the end of 2022.
“He’s obviously quite a big dog so that was the first thing we noticed but instantly, we saw something change in JJ. JJ doesn’t use words to communicate but we know how he’s feeling by the sounds he makes and his body language. Immediately we could see how calm he had become around Buddy.
“There was an instant connection, which was just magical to see. Even the Guide Dogs specialist Robbie was surprised to see them bond so quickly! I’ll never forget that day.
“From the moment they met, Buddy won’t leave JJ’s side. And he’s like a little shadow with the girls too – following them around wherever they go. They all love to play together and it’s so lovely to hear giggles echo around the house from the kids – he’s made a huge imprint on our lives, but especially and most importantly, on JJ.
“I get out and about so much more, and it’s really helped all of our children become more confident and come out of their shells – even with JJ’s difficulties in communicating, Buddy has given him a new way to express himself. He’s has made us so much closer as a family and we spend so much more quality time together now. All the cuddles with Buddy now means that JJ will let people cuddle him, which he didn’t do before.
“I know everyone says this about their dog, but there really is no other dog like Buddy. He’s so soft and has the biggest heart. He’s so caring and knows if one of us is having a bad day – coming really close to sit by us. And he will be waiting by the front door for JJ to come home from school, or after a hospital visit.
“There was one particularly long stint in hospital for JJ and Buddy would sleep in his bedroom until he came home. And JJ really missed Buddy too - so much so that when a therapy dog came to visit him in hospital, he got quite emotional because he just wanted his Buddy by his side.”
The family live near to the coast in Northumberland and often evenings and weekends are spent on the beach which has become Buddy’s favourite place. JJ has also benefited from an iPad through Guide Dogs’ Tech for All scheme which he takes with him to school - and Buddy often comes along for the ride!
“Buddy absolutely adores the beach – he gets so excited when he knows we’re nearly there and JJ’s school is on the way. At school, he has a real calming effect on all the children when they see him – so he often comes with us on the school run because it really helps JJ ease into the school day. Before Buddy, school was always quite difficult,” Nicole continues.
Since Buddy joined the family, Nicole says everyone, especially JJ, laughs so much more now.
“Buddy is so goofy and loves to play – we sometimes take him to sensory rooms with JJ and often he starts playing in the ball pool and gently pushing balls towards JJ. JJ will just sit there and laugh out loud! And at home, he sometimes has giddy moments where he just runs around the house all excited and the kids absolutely love it – they don’t stop laughing. But he’s also a very calming influence too, which is really important – often laying down next to JJ if he’s which really soothes him.”
“One memory that has permanently stuck in my head is a family BBQ we had this year.
“There were a lot of people there and Buddy would be sitting next to JJ in his wheelchair and I would watch as people would call Buddy over. Every time they did, Buddy would turn to JJ give him a sniff and lick, then run off to whoever called him, but after he got there he would turn back to make sure JJ was still ok and he would keep checking until he was ready to go back.
“Getting back to JJ he would then sniff and lick him to make sure he was ok then sit back down next to him.”
Nicole believes more awareness is needed about German Shepherds as a breed, as the family have often been subjected to judgemental comments or behaviour by others.
“I’ve had quite a few people saying not very nice things to me or Buddy when we’re out on a walk – it can be quite challenging. Even if they don’t say anything, people will cross the road to avoid Buddy which speaks volumes. So I’d love for people to understand that as a breed, they can be as loving and as gentle as any other dog.
“Family members who were previously afraid of dogs, especially big ones, have now fallen in love – even my parents are talking about getting their own German Shepherd! So he really has changed the lives of our whole family.”
So what will the first Christmas be like for the family, now that Buddy is around?
Nicole said: “Christmas has always been nice – but very simple and probably quite boring at times! Buddy is going to make this Christmas so much more fun – the children are already planning what they can get him as a present, making sure it’s a great experience for him too by putting treats in his gifts so he can smell them. We feel excited about Christmas now, knowing it’s going to be more special with Buddy around.
“We really don’t know what we’d do without Buddy now – it’s hard to imagine a life without him. We are so grateful to Guide Dogs.
“When you hear about people having strong bonds with pets it's hard to believe it without seeing it for yourself. If you’d have known JJ before Buddy you would be shocked at just how much the bond has change him as a person.
“Going from being socially anxious, worrying when people were around him, not liking people walking in front of him, to being the total opposite - it's a miracle.
“The bond they have is unbreakable, and I’d encourage any families who have a child with sight loss to apply – it really is life-changing.”
More information about buddy dogs can be found here.
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