Darwin Dog in Disney

I already knew how much my Darwin Dog assistance dog Sherlock had changed my life, but, even so, I didn’t realise how much better he would make my holiday in Disneyland Paris.

Even the packing – the point where I usually start to get really anxious and second guess myself into paralysis –  was no problem with a black, furry, wagging companion sitting on the other side of the case, watching carefully as every item went in, picking things up I dropped and occasionally taking things already packed out of the case and prancing off with them while wagging furiously! Once he even got into the case and went to sleep. I think he was making sure he wasn’t left behind this time. Packing had never been so much fun.

Even the 8 hour car journey, including the terrifyingly claustrophobic bit under the channel, was so much better with Sherlock next to me, resting his head on my foot or lap, licking my hand and gazing up into my face. He seemed to know when I was getting particularly stressed and nuzzled up to me, wagging his tail and licking until I felt better. We even went to sleep together.

So I arrived much more relaxed and rested than ever before, to find that even the boring and time consuming process of checking in was so much better. Instead of trying to hide in a corner while my parents did the business, I found myself surrounded by staff and visitors all wanting to say hello to Sherlock. With him providing a conversational bridge, I was soon chatting away to people of all ages and nationalities, and doing it with a big smile on my face. I went to my room feeling in a wonderful holiday mood.

This pattern continued for the whole holiday. Sherlock walked impeccably round the park and politely said hello to what felt like hundreds of people. Everything took much longer than usual because of all this chatting but was also so much more fun. I started to recognise people from previous days’ meetings and we waved or stopped for a catch up. It was like being on holiday with friends. I felt so much more part of things, instead of keeping my head down and trying to be invisible. I noticed that people seemed to want to talk to me as well as to Sherlock and that made me feel so much happier and more confident.

As well as having severe depression and anxiety, and being on the autistic spectrum, I have muscular dystrophy and have to use an electric wheelchair, so I can’t go on many of the rides. Those I can go on, like ‘It’s a Small World’ and the paddle steamer, were so much more fun with Sherlock sitting calmly next to me and taking it all in. I think he enjoyed it as much as I did although he did look a little too interested in the ducks on the lake

We went to see the live ‘Lion King’ show. Sherlock calmly lay down and ignored the loud music, clapping, smoke and the acrobats who swung over his head because the wheelchairs were right in front of the stage. I couldn’t have been more proud of him. We didn’t notice the crush to leave at the end because, once again, we were surrounded by Sherlock’s admirers who couldn’t believe how well behaved he was.

In the restaurant, he ignored the wonderful buffet as per his training and lay calmly under the table. The restaurant staff were so impressed that they kept a corner table specially for him so he had a safe nook to lie in, and on our last night they gave us both a present from them all – a plush Mickey Mouse for Sherlock and Minnie for me. Disney Characters come round during dinner and I was visited much more often than usual because they all wanted to meet Sherlock. I got some lovely photos of him with the characters, especially Eeyore who’s my favourite. Even the photos of me are so much better than on other holidays because, posing Sherlock and telling people about him, I forgot to be self-conscious. I wondered if Sherlock would find the characters strange or even frightening but I needn’t have worried, his sense of smell told him they were only people in unusual clothes. Thank goodness Darwin Dogs’ training had emphasised accustoming Sherlock to all sorts of different people and experiences!

Sherlock sat calmly watching the parade – twice – and was unbothered by the floats, dancers and loud music, even the dragon that breathed real fire! I got much better pictures than usual because the dancers and characters smiled and waved at Sherlock – and some even broke ranks and came over for a quick stroke!

Outside the specially adapted bedrooms in our hotel was a little enclosed garden and almost the best bit of the holiday was watching Sherlock, once his working harness and uniform were taken off, revert to mad spaniel and rush around the grass and into the shrubbery collecting all the new scents. He was delighted when a French cat strolled across, although the cat was much less delighted to see him, while an obliging French squirrel gave him a good chase from tree to tree most days.

I usually spend the last day alternating between tears and panic attacks at the prospect of returning to real life. This time, Sherlock was there on my lap, nuzzling under my chin and licking my face at the first sign of distress and stopping the panic attacks in their tracks. Knowing I was upsetting him stopped me focusing only on myself and, much to my astonishment, in trying to keep Sherlock happy I found myself making the most of the day. Then there was all the chatting to Sherlock’s many fans, old and new, round the Parks to keep me in the moment. To my surprise, I found myself smiling and enjoying even that last day.

For the first time I didn’t dread the journey home because I knew Sherlock would be there. We can’t wait to go back!