Personal Column One man's best friend

After Allen Parton was severely disabled during the first Gulf War, he descended into a lonely existence of bitterness and anger. Then he met a Labrador called Endal
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The Independent Online

When I went to the Gulf war in 1991 I was a happily married naval officer with two young children. One month later, during a shore exercise, I was in a car accident. I spent the next five years in hospital and rehab.

I couldn't read, write, walk or talk. I couldn't recall being married or the birth of my children. I had lost 50 per cent of my life history, which hasn't come back. In effect, I had lost my past and my future.

My wife, Sandra, was a nurse and I was discharged into her care, but I didn't know her. Love is based on history, but I had no recollection of my previous life with Sandra. There was this person at the end of my bed who kept saying that she was my wife, but it didn't mean that I loved her.

I was a changed person. I was in denial that I was disabled and in a wheelchair. How do you go from being a naval officer who doesn't have to ask anyone anything, who has travelled the world and is the main breadwinner, to being someone who can't remember what day of the week it is? I was emotionally wrecked. I tried to commit suicide twice during those first five years.

One day in 1997, Sandra read about a charity in the local paper called Canine Partners which matches the disabled with trained dog helpers. They were looking for people to take a puppy for 14 months, socialise it and take it to puppy class once a week. It was recognised that I could never have one because I couldn't even look after myself but Sandra decided to take one on anyway.

One day she was going to puppy class and the bus to take me to day care didn't come, so I went with her. At the time I couldn't communicate with people and didn't want to. I was in a very bitter and twisted world of my own and if anyone tried to come into it I would be gruff or turn away. I just sat in the corner.

A little yellow Labrador picked something off the floor and put it in my lap. Normally dogs are given a treat when they get something right, but he didn't get a reaction and that really hacked him off. He marched off to the mock-up supermarket and took a tin off the shelf and put that in my lap, and then another. I was slowly disappearing under a pile of stuff. I smiled properly for the first time in five years.

We took Endal home. He and I learnt a sign language that wouldn't make sense to anyone else. If I touched my head it meant get my hat, if I touched my hand it meant get my wheelchair gloves, and if I rubbed my face it meant get my electric razor. If I'm in the bath he knows to pull the plug out before getting help. On a busy day in a pub he'll drop my wallet on the bar and bark until I'm served.

Before Endal arrived, my communication with my family was very bad. I used to bark things and sounded horrible and spiteful. Endal somehow softened that and dragged out my now fluent speech, which, despite five years of speech therapists, wasn't going too well.

Slowly he teased back the human emotions I had lost. Without them you are not really human. He was able to come into that pit of despair and he lit it up.

Endal gave me the ability to look after myself, and it meant my wife and I could stop being nurse and patient and become husband and wife again. Four years ago we renewed our wedding vows at a country club near where we live in Hampshire. I can't remember getting married the first time. This was a statement that we had underlined the past, fallen in love again in a different way and that our future was together. Endal was my best man and wore a matching jacket to mine.

My relationship with my children - Liam, 21, and Zoe, 19 - couldn't be better now. When I came back from the Gulf war they hated me. The person who came back wasn't the man they loved. Endal got them a different person, but a nice person.

The week after we renewed our vows, Endal was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal. While we were at Crufts the year before I was hit by a car and was left unconscious in a car park. He put me into the recovery position, went under my buckled wheelchair, found my blanket, covered me with it and then crawled under a car and found my mobile phone. He pushed it into my face and tried to wake me. He then went to a hotel to get help.

He's been given so many other awards. In 1999 he was made Dog of the Millennium by Dogs Today magazine. I'm taking him to Crufts for the ninth time this year where he will be helping on the charity stand.

Endal gave me unconditional love. I'd put such a defence up against human beings, and he managed to sneak into my disorganised world of misery and make me laugh. He didn't see the nasty side. My life was like a puzzle blown up by the Gulf war and everyday Endal has gone off and found a bit of that puzzle and brought it back. The puzzle will never be whole but he's made sense of what's left. The love of that dog has saved my life, my marriage and my relationship with my children.

I can't work out what I have done to justify the love I receive from Endal. I know one day I will put my hand down by the side of the wheelchair and he won't be there, but his legacy will remain. Every morning I wake up and think I'm the richest man in the world.

Allen Parton was talking to Julia Stuart