Ian Free's carer slaves away at home and always buys the drinks at the pub - it's a dog's life. Chris Mowbray reports
Alex the golden retriever and his master, Ian Free, had something to celebrate when they visited their local public house recently. Only a few days earlier, Mr Free might have ended up in the casualty ward, had it not been for Alex.

Despite his gratitude, Mr Free let the dog pay for the drinks - just as he always does. A dog buying drinks in a public house? It sounds like a cue for a music hall joke. In fact, it is proof that a new scheme for providing care for the severely disabledis working better then anyone could imagine.

Ian Free, aged 28, has no mobility below his arms and relies on an electric wheelchair. He broke his neck in a diving accident when he was 19 and earning his living as a lorry driver.

His lifestyle since the accident has been revolutionised by the charity Canine Partners for Independence which trains dogs to act as carers.

The reason Alex buys the drinks is not to show off a tap room party trick, but because it is one of his duties as a canine companion. He stands on his hind legs at the bar with money in his mouth, gives it to the bar staff and then takes the change back to Mr Free.

Alex performs similar tasks when they go shopping. He fetches the newspaper from the newsagent and gently pulls down items from shop shelves at his master's direction. He will pick up anything from a tin of soup or a packet of biscuits to a loaf of bread. He has never dropped or damaged an item.

Alex performs his most amazing feat at the butcher's shop.Controlling his naturally voracious appetite - for which his breed is renowned - he stands up at the counter, takes the wrapped weekend joint of meat from the butcher and puts it in Mr Free's shopping basket.

When dog and master return to their council flat in Portishead, Bristol, Alex helps Mr Free take off his hat and coat and then runs whatever errands are asked of him.

These include such household chores as fetching and carrying, turning lights on and off and drawing the curtains. It was after a recent outing that Alex saved Mr Free from serious injury. They had just returned home when the back of Mr Free's wheelchair suddenly collapsed and he fell backwards, hitting his head on the floor and leaving the lower part of his body still trapped in the wheelchair.

"If I had been alone, I would have had to spend four hours arched over backwards in a very uncomfortable position and it could easily have killed me," says Mr Free. He has a drain tube for his bladder and must always be sitting up so that it can work with gravity. He also needs to be upright to breathe. "As it was, I just told Alex to fetch me the mobile phone and then I telephoned one of my carers who came down immediately, broke into the flat and summoned help.

"Alex is absolutely brilliant, he has transformed my life. I used to spend a lot of time alone at home and this meant a large amount of boredom.

"I bought my wheelchair to get out and about, but I felt that I had nothing to do once I was out. Now I am out with Alex all the time as I have to take him for walks. Although I have only had him for three months, he has already done so much that I feel I have to look after him properly and pay him back for all the help he gives me."

Meanwhile, Alex is slaving away in the kitchen, unloading the washing machine. A dog's work, it seems, is never done. Mr Free releases the door lock and the dog opens the door with his paw or his nose. He then puts the washing in a laundry basket or, on Mr Free's lap so he can hang it up.

"I owe it to him to keep him busy because, if he does not work, he will quickly become bored and there is nothing worse than a bored dog," Mr Free adds.

"After going on a training course and finding out what these dogs could do, it was quite apparent there was a bond between Alex and myself. We are a team and he is by my side all the time and responds quickly to my commands."

Alex is also a big money saver. It costs £5,000 to buy and train him, but he is achieving an annual saving of £6,000 by taking over many of the duties carried out by human carers.

It all sounds remarkably easy, but the successful partnership between Ian Free and Alex has been forged through a gruelling training course and months of painstaking work by the charity to match dogs and recipients.

Not only must the dogs have special qualities to be chosen, but so must the humans for whom they care. A recipient must be medically stable, live near a park so the animal can be exercised and have the support of friends and family who can help ensure the dog's welfare.

"If a potential recipient wants a dog to become a pal and to go around with it as a team, then we are interested," says Nina Bondarenko, the charity's chief trainer. "Recipients must also have a positive attitude and have to come to terms with their condition.

"Once recipients have been matched to their dogs, we put them through difficult tests during a two-week residential training course. The recipients have to endure a fair amount of application to complete the course, but they stick at it because they are so desperate to get a dog.

The tests include going to a bank and getting the dog to give a chequebook to the cashier, making the dog stay alone in one spot in a shopping precinct, using a cafe and a lift, and making the dog obey 86 commands.

"It has to be a hard course for them because if they can cope with it, we know that they will be able to cope with anything the world can throw at them later on," Mrs Bondarenko adds.

"We choose the dogs at seven weeks old. They stay with a puppy walker for about a year, then I take them over and train them for six months sitting in a wheelchair.

"We teach the puppies like children. They learn to recognise everyday words like `chair,' or `brush' - objects which they may have to fetch later on. We give them a reward or a cuddle when they obey commands, but eventually the dogs will work because it gives them pleasure."

Although Canine Partners for Independence was founded four years ago, the training course for its first three dogs and their recipients was only completed in August. The delay was caused by the fact that a professional fund-raising company retained by the charity charged £35,000, raised only £386 and then went bankrupt.

The charity has turned an annual operating loss of £45,000 into a £7,000 profit with grants from charitable trusts. It is now embarking on a fund-raising drive and hopes eventually to train up to 24 dogs each year.

"It is a very small charity with a chequered career and we must have more money if it is to survive and to build the training centre it so badly needs," says the chairman, Rosemary Smith."Now that we have trained these dogs and their recipients, we can show we have achieved something."