Here's Orca, with his owner, Cheryl Alexander.
Cheryl suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy syndrome.
It causes severe pain and swelling in the skin. Cheryl tells BuzzFeed News:
My life is my life, and I tend not to dwell on things I cannot change. The main initial symptoms are severe, unyielding pain that is inappropriate to the stimulus. For example, a cotton bud may feel like a knife or a slight touch like being thumped. Sometimes no stimulus is necessary. In the early stages this is terrifying and crippling. It is also very difficult to deal with. You know it shouldn't hurt. Mine affects most of my body and is believed to have been triggered by a virus in 1993 that affected my nervous system. But we will never know. It does not matter to me. Later, through lack of use and the progression of the disease, muscles waste, bones thin and warp, skin breaks down.
There are parts of my legs tnat no longer have any sensation, and parts that are confused. I cannot tell the difference between hot and cold for example. My bones break easily. I can still walk, indoors, with crutches, short distances. But I am more disabled walking than in a chair...But my life is my life, and I rather like it, all things considered. The one thing that broke my heart at the time was that it cost me my dream of joining the Royal Navy. Having said that, I would have had a very different life than the one I have now. And I would have never met Orca.
Orca, a male golden retriever, was given to Cheryl in 2003. He'd been hers for six weeks when the most extraordinary thing happened.
Cheryl used to walk Orca twice a day and would take him up into some fields via a footpath. She says that by this point: "Orca and I were working well as a team and I was already getting used to trusting him." Cheryl doesn't like asking for help with her disability from humans ("I don't know why. Sometimes I have no choice, but I feel it reminds me of the things I cannot do, and I do not enjoy this feeling.") but it was "different" with Orca.
So we were walking, far from home. It was a fairly wet day, and quite cold. I was on the section that runs past a deep ditch. It never worried me, as I made this journey daily. But I hit something, a rock I believe, and it turned the wheels of the chair into the ditch, and before I knew it, I was at the bottom. The ditch is steep, and the bank overgrown. It's not a sheer drop, and I think around 12 feet to the bottom. At the bottom was around a foot of water. I was [in it] knees first, still sitting upright in the chair, but the back of the chair [was] horizontal. It was partly supported by the bank, but I was pinned under. The chair weighed almost 300 lbs, so there was no way I was going to get it off.
Orca immediately started to bark, and was trying to edge down the bank to get to me. He knew this was not right. I shouted at him to stop him coming down. I did not think he would get out again. At this point I was more embarrassed than afraid. Orca was crying by now, and there was nobody around. I did not have a mobile phone at this point, but it would have been underwater if I had, so Orca was my only hope. I asked him to "Get help!"
He did not want to go, but with encouragement, he left. Understand that he is trained to do this in a situation that is staged in a training environment, and the person he asks for help always responds. This is important. Orca was gone a fair while, and returned, collarless, wet and with his jacket round his front. I thought he had gone off for a play.
By now it was raining and the water was rising, so I was beginning to realise this was not a good situation and was getting very cold. So I asked him to get help again. This time he was off without hesitation. I do not know how long he was gone this time. It was certainly a while. When he came back again, he had a jogger with him, Peter Harrison, and [a] neighbour from a few streets away that previously I did not know.
Orca laid at the top of the bank. Peter fetched the fire brigade and while they worked, Orca laid at the top of the bank and watched as they brought me up. I had hypothermia by now, and he came over and licked my face. Campus security took him while I was taken to the hospital.
They tried to feed him cakes and bacon, which he refused to eat. That evening I collected him, after leaving hospital warmed up and with a few cuts and bruises, and we went home. There was a message on my answerphone. Someone walking their dog had found Orca, who barked at him and looked like he was trying to play. The man thought he was a stray, and tried to take him home. Orca is trained to walk nicely on a lead, and by his training should have gone with the man.
But he tried to take him away from me, and as soon as he did, Orca pulled his collar off. The man tried to grab him by the jacket, but Orca was having one of it and ran off, back to me. The man had the collar, and rang the number. Peter Harrison had been jogging, and Orca just ran up to him and started barking at him.
He initially ignored Orca, but he wouldn't give up, and said he felt like he should follow the dog. Orca trotted off, stopping every few seconds to make sure he was still following him, and led him to me. Whilst it is true I probably would not have been there if I had not had the dog, if he had not both done as I asked and broken his training, I would have died in that ditch. It was hailing when I was rescued. I knew at that point, this was no ordinary dog.
It wasn't the only example of Orca being obstinate.
Cheryl tells us Orca was an "expert" when it came to understanding her emotions. She says he "would chase his tail or bring me toys" when she was sad, would get "excited" if she was, and would become "protective" if she was scared:
He knew very well I didn't like people doing things for me, especially without asking, and he would rush to do it first.
I dropped a [ten pound note] in a bank. He could work a cash machine so he would handle money often. A man tried to pick it up. Orca found it hard to pick up as flat pieces of paper are hard to catch hold of with your teeth (I assume), and Orca initially couldn't grip it. So he put his foot on it, and would not get off. I said he was just taking his work seriously, and when the man backed off, he pawed it, got it and gave it to me.
There are other incidents where Orca has shown another side. Once in 2005 I saw two teenagers trying to steal a car. I photographed them and called the police. They approached. One told the other to get the phone off me. At that point, I was moving away. Orca snarled and barked at them. I had never seen him do this before. One teen declined to approach the dog, and the other said it was only a Labrador (he wasn't) and it would not bite him. Orca positioned himself between us, and curled his lip, growling. The boys ran off, the police arrived and arrested them both, identified by myself and caught in the act by my photograph. As his pack leader, Orca would have given his life for me.
When Cheryl became a mother, Orca reacted extremely well.
In part it was due to the preparation – she played baby noise CDs in the house and practised with a doll for 6 months before her daughter Lily was born:
I taught Orca he could smell and nuzzle the baby's feet. Every time we trained, he would give me a knowing look; He knew it was not a real baby. But he was game for the training.
When Lily arrived Orca came to visit in the hospital when she was only a couple of hours old. He was initially curious, but then fairly indifferent. He was not over keen on the crying. Being a new mother, the crying would make me slightly anxious, so it affected him. Bringing her home, in a cold winter, Orca and I would go for walks with Lily inside my jacket. He liked walks, and quickly, putting on a baby carrier meant walkies for him. So he started bringing it at the appropriate time. He learned to fetch nappies and other baby items by the time Lily had been home 3 days. He always liked work, so all this was great! As Lily grew, he would watch her, fascinated by what she was doing. He did not like other dogs approaching us, and would body block them from coming near Lily, until he had vetted them. I am not sure what criteria he used.
Lily started talking very early, just before 6 months. Her first word was dog, then cat, then Orca, then Dad. Mom did not follow for another 7 months. When she could move more, Orca had another talent. He had been practising this for years on the cats. We called it "grassing" on them. He would bark in the middle of the night. This meant "the cat has a mouse/rat/bird." He would bark if the cat tried to get into the fridge, or was on a kitchen counter. Now it was Lily. If he ever thought she was doing something she shouldn't, he would tell me. Not that I didn't supervise her, but if she got hold of a biro, barking. If she got an arm out of her shirt, barking. If she cried, even though I could hear her, if I did not act within 3 seconds he would be at my side to tell me.
I never taught him any of this. He loved Lily because I do. Lily loved him. She still asks where he is, and gets sad that he is gone. She played with him all the time. She still refers to going out for a walk as walking the dog. The most adorable thing was that Orca had a lifelong love of socks. When he was young he used to steal mine, or present them to house guests. He liked hers, too. So did she. They used to play together with socks, or he'd take hers off, or she'd throw balled up socks for him to fetch.
Orca died on 5 November. Cheryl says:
That dog could read my mind. He knew what I needed before I did. He could always find the car keys. He never thought less of me if I couldn't do something. He just saw me for who I am. My disability was irrelevant to him. He just wanted my love. He adored me. It is a powerful bond. He walked at my side, everywhere, for 12 years. I spent more time with him than anyone else, ever. He wasn't my slave, there to fetch and carry, he was my friend. He was the best. Letting him go was awful. But it was the last favour I could do him.
I loved him like nothing else. I always will. He was at my graduations, my wedding, never left my side. He was silly and kind. He stole socks and rolled in leaves. He'd eat snow until he was sick. He would try and carry huge logs around. He would not go in the garden if there was a hedgehog. He was afraid of geese. He was fascinated by frogs, and would follow them about. He'd roll his eyes if you scratched the right part of his ear. He hated baths but loved filthy ditches. He had a rottweiler friend called Sapphire, and loved to wrestle with her. He would stare at people eating yoghurt, hoping they would let him lick the pot.
People really undervalue what the dogs do and how the partnership works. It's not just a case of having a servant. Orca would have never done anything he did not want to do. He did it because he got as much from me as I did him. My world was planned around him. My journey to work. My house and garden. We bought him a car when he got old so he could lie on a bed on the floor. He made it so I didn't have to worry if I dropped my keys. He made me visible, because people have an inclination to either ignore people in wheelchairs or underestimate my intelligence. I used the dog as a kind of Boswell; I'd talk to him and people would realise they did not have to use monosyllables.
I have applied for another dog, but there will never be another Orca. But I can love another dog. I can cope without an assistance dog but I don't want to. It's so much better to share my life with a friend as good as Orca was.