There’s a photograph of Aaron Thornhill on his Communion day, standing proudly beside his dog Mitch; equally dapper in his own suit and dicky bow.

What you might not guess is that just five weeks beforehand, Aaron underwent surgery to lengthen his hamstrings. Mitch’s steady support was key to getting him back on his feet for the big day.

But then, Mitch has been a constant presence at Aaron’s side since he woofed his way into his life – and heart – in 2021.

“Aaron’s always saying that Mitch is his best friend,” says his mother, Tina, of the assistance poodle who has become an integral part of their family.

Aaron was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, which meant that before Mitch padded along, walking more than 15 minutes was a struggle.

“It made life hard,” shrugs the 10-year-old from Glanmire, who was using a wheelchair at one stage due to inflammation around his hip. “Now, I can walk 2km with Mitch.”

Aaron with his assistance dog, Mitch, pictured for his first holy Communion.

That’s not all: last year, for instance, he completed an ‘IronKids’ run, with Mitch waiting faithfully at the finish line. And only a few weeks ago, the family were told that Aaron would not need a scheduled surgery on his ankle this summer, such is the progress he has made between appointments.

“They couldn’t believe the difference,” says Tina, who attributes this transformation to the work that Aaron has put into walking with Mitch.

But ultimately, what really comes across is the special relationship between this boy and his dog.

“We wrestle and we try to rob the toys off each other, and we run around with each other,” lists Aaron breathlessly. “I love Mitch so much!”

Dream teams

Aaron and Mitch are just one of the many dream teams matched by Dogs for the Disabled.

The Cork-based charity was established in 2007 by Jennifer Dowler, who saw a need to provide highly-trained, accredited assistance dogs to support people with physical disabilities live independent lives. About 85% of clients are children with conditions such as cerebral palsy and ataxia, which can affect mobility and balance.

“We really want to help the next generation,” says Jennifer. “We find with the children, if we can keep them mobile when they’re small, we can keep them more mobile when they’re older.”

The charity operates an ethical breeding programme where dogs are selected on health and temperament, working primarily with three breeds: the labrador, golden retriever and poodle.

Most spend their early lives with “foster families”, who generally volunteer their time for 12-18 months to help prepare the puppies for their important roles ahead.

“They’re educating the puppies on good social etiquette rather than training them. Because most of our dogs will end up with children, the dog’s ability to be safe around them is paramount for us,” explains Jennifer.

Specialised training

Training is then delivered by the Dogs for the Disabled team, who currently operate from Togher. The charity has developed its own “mobility dog programme”, where the dog is trained to aid forward motion and balance while successfully avoiding everyday obstacles when walking.

Some dogs, however, are trained to respond to specific needs, particularly for adult clients with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries or Parkinson’s.

Tina and Aaron Thornhill, Glanmire, Co Cork out walking with Aaron's assistance dog Mitch. \ Donal O' Leary

“Opening doors, turning off light switches, sending for help, emptying the washing machine,” lists Jennifer. “We would go to the family’s home and say, ‘What do you need?’”

What’s just as important, however, is that the dogs are often a conversation starter when a client is out and about.

“When people see the dog, they’re nearly distracted by it to the point where they forget about that person’s disability for the first few seconds,” says Jennifer, who feels that often, people might avoid speaking to someone with a disability for fear of “saying the wrong thing”.

“But then, they can feel invisible; and they want to be seen and they want to be nodded at at the bus stop,” she continues. “Those are the little things that make the big difference.”

Fur-ever home

When it comes to matching a dog with a client, people are asked to apply directly to the charity to start the assessment process. Jennifer says that this process can take up to three years for a successful match, but that it’s important to take this time.

“We need to make sure that people are prepared for and have realistic expectations of what’s expected of the dog so that we can set it up for success,” she explains.

Each year, about 35 dogs “graduate” to go to their forever homes. Pups that do not qualify as assistance dogs, however, go on to fulfil important roles as therapy dogs – for instance, Dogs for the Disabled currently has dogs working with dementia patients while others are in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit.

While it costs the charity approximately €15,000 to train and support each mobility assistance dog, clients are never asked for a penny. Instead, this expense is covered by fundraising, with total running costs racking up to ¤1million a year.

There is no limit to Dogs for the Disabled’s ambitions, however, having recently secured their own “forever home” with an 11-acre site and property that they will renovate to make sure that even more people benefit from the transformative powers of puppy love.

“We come across lots of people who are real fighters and who have a lot to give to our world,” concludes Jennifer. “We want to empower them to fight on.”

To support Dogs for the Disabled, apply for an assistance dog, or be considered as a puppy socialiser, call 021-431-6627 or visit

'Volunteering is so rewarding'

Mitchell (Mitch) and Siobhan Hayes, Blarney, Co Cork with Mitch, the assistance dog they helped to raise for Dogs for the Disabled. \ Donal O' Leary

While Aaron’s dog Mitch now resides in Glanmire, he was one of 10 puppies born and initially reared on a dairy farm in Dawstown, Blarney, by Mitch and Siobhan Hayes.

The couple were originally approached by family friend and Dogs for the Disabled volunteer, Kate Durrant, to see if they would be interested in taking care of a poodle called Ianna, who was expecting her second litter in spring 2019.

As their daughters, Meig, Mollie and Ella, were at home at the time, it was a perfect fit. But had they any apprehension initially?

“We were just worried in case the dog would go missing,” responds Siobhan, while Mitch admits that they did not know what to expect from a poodle as they were not familiar with the breed. “But they’re a highly-intelligent dog, a lovely temperament and very smart,” he says.

Indeed, Ianna quickly became part of the Hayes family, and one Friday night in June, 10 pups made their entrance. The fact that Siobhan works as a midwife came in handy. For example, as five of the puppies were much smaller than the other five, she divided them into two groups to ensure they had equal opportunity to feed from Ianna, with a changeover every three hours in the earliest days.

“The switch took place 12 o’clock, 3am, 6am…” she explains. “Mitch used to be going to the cows in the morning at 6am, so if I was on night duty, it was his job to do the switch. If one of the girls was coming in from a nightclub, it was their turn to do the switch because it was so important. We were very mindful of the clock.”

As the weeks passed, the family trained the puppies to eat solids, got them used to being handled and also played audio recordings of noises such as traffic to start socialising them.

“That’s how they would get used to urban sounds,” explains Mitch, “their training starts quite early.”

They all share very happy memories of that summer; but handing the puppies back after seven weeks was a wrench.

“I didn’t sleep the night before and I cried all the way over here [to Dogs for the Disabled] because we were going to miss them so much,” admits Siobhan; though when one of the puppies, Maude, struggled to settle, the family brought her home for another nine months to continue her training as “puppy socialisers”.

This photoshoot, however, was the first time that the couple had seen Mitch since 2019; and it was clear that it made an impact.

“Seeing Aaron just blew me away and their relationship,” says Siobhan. “It makes you realise the importance of this work and it really confirms and drives it home that it was worth it.”

“That’s what it’s about,” agrees Mitch. “You can see that he’s cracked about his dog and the dog is nuts about Aaron.”

In brief

€15,000: The cost of training and supporting an assistance dog

35: The number of dogs that ‘graduated’ in 2023

€1million: What it costs per year to operate the charity

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