Kerry Irving: Meet my four-legged saviour

In a split-second Kerry Irving lost his career, his health and his reason for living. As he contemplated giving up for good, he caught sight of this friendly, furry face…

‘Are you ready, Max? If anyone’s going to help me do this, it’s you.’

The dog sitting at my side looks up and meets my gaze, his tail swishing back and forth. In the distance, looming high against the dawn sky, stands a rocky summit that I hope to conquer.

Max the dog
Kerry’s springer spaniel, Max.

Hiking up Ben Nevis is a challenge that, until recently, I’d have considered impossible. It is, I believe, a chance for me to face my fears. If it wasn’t for Max, I wouldn’t be here at all.

***

I’d had it all: a loving wife, a challenging job in sales and an all-consuming hobby as a mountain bike trail rider around where we live in Keswick, The Lake District.

I was a ‘work hard, play hard’ type and I determined to live my life to the fullest – until the summer of 2006 when, at 41, I became a shell of my former self. I was sitting in a queue of rush-hour traffic when I saw a fast-approaching lorry fill my rear-view mirror. The impact that followed was so loud it sounded like a bomb had detonated. My car had been slammed from behind. A surge of adrenaline masked the shock so, at the time, it appeared that I had escaped serious injury. My father-in-law (a retired ambulance man) insisted on me going to hospital, where I was checked over then referred to my GP.

The next day I felt dizzy, sick and my upper back was increasingly uncomfortable. My doctor wrote me a prescription for painkillers and advised patience. But it only got worse. Sometimes the slightest movement could leave me feeling as though my spine had become electrified. I could only walk with a shuffle and my headaches mounted until they were completely blinding. I was sent from one back specialist to another, but each gave me a different opinion.

My poor wife Angela had to watch me sliding into helplessness. She did everything in her power to support me, but living with chronic pain and a medication regime that messed with my mind left me in a pit of despair. I became reluctant to go out at all. As the months ticked by, I even became fearful of doing so.

I saw no one. After the accident my friends visited often but, as time progressed, the knocks on the door became few and far between. I was unable to work, dropping a hard-earned salary. Now I relied on Angela and her hairdressing business to keep a roof over our heads. I couldn’t even help around the house: doing the dishes or changing a lightbulb left me writhing in agony.

We made numerous emergency trips to A&E for more painkillers. I became obsessive about the medication, worrying what would happen if I ran out or if I lost access to it. Eventually, I used it as a reason not to leave the house at all. Three years after the accident I had lost all hope that anyone could help me and had a series of impulsive urges to take my own life. It had been months since I’d left the front door to do anything other than shuffle to the car, but one day Angela convinced me to pop to the shop to get milk. Neither of us realised how life-changing that short walk would be.

I felt horribly vulnerable and had to stop to calm myself or let people pass, braced for that whip crack of pain. I was so lost in thought that I didn’t even notice the dog watching me from behind the railings of his garden. It was only when I heard a whimper that I glanced over my shoulder.

Kerry Irving with his dog, Max
Kerry with Max near their home in the Lake District.

A springer spaniel peered up. I found myself looking into two soulful brown eyes. I didn’t think my back would allow it but, carefully, I lowered myself so one knee touched the ground to see him properly. The dog responded by attempting to lick my face. ‘Max,’ I said, reading the name on his tag. ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Kerry.’

Max was a handsome young fellow, also somewhat subdued for a spaniel. ‘I’ll see you around,’ I told my new friend, and set off with the sense that he was literally watching my back. I returned home on such a high, that I craved the next challenge. So I went out again the next day. I walked via the street where I met Max and my heart leapt when I saw a brown and white snout jutting through the railings. ‘Hey, Max! Remember me?

‘He is a smashing dog,’ I said to his owner.

‘Well, Max certainly likes you,’ she replied warmly. ‘He’s a very friendly chap. He doesn’t get out as much as he’d like. I care for my father,’ she added.

‘I’d be happy to walk him, if it helps?’ I asked. Instantly, I regretted speaking up. Here I was, a relative stranger, offering to exercise her dog.

‘He likes the churchyard,’ she said. ‘You’re welcome to take him there.’

‘Really?’ I mean, I’d love to! It’s probably about as far as I can go, to be honest.’

‘Then Max will look after you,’ she said.

It was only a slight climb to the churchyard from Max’s house, but when we arrived we stopped for a rest at a bench overlooking the town. I sensed him press against me a little more. For the first time in an age, I felt free. Things seemed considerably brighter. I was taking in my surroundings – the majestic mountain rise of the Cat Bells, the churchyard with its gate, the padlock covered over with ivy.

I sat there thinking about what I could do with my life, a question I had been turning over in my mind for some time, when the answer fell into place as I looked at the padlock. I would become a locksmith. I had always liked taking things apart and putting them together. I could set up a mobile business and be my own boss which, I reasoned, meant I could choose my own hours to balance work and rest.

Walking Max became a part of my routine. I always chatted to him as we trundled along, voicing thoughts and feelings I had previously kept to myself. When I told people my troubles I could see pity in their eyes, but Max offered no judgment. It seemed the world had left me behind since the accident but this friendly dog was reminding me that I could still catch up.

Kerry with Max
Kerry and Max as they conquered Ben Nevis.

Four years after the accident, I had qualified as a locksmith and Max was coming with me to work. I loved having him with me. The accident had left me anxious about driving – if anyone drove too close I would become stressed, but Max would rest a paw on my arm from the passenger seat, as if he was saying, ‘Chill out.’

The fact I had come close to taking my own life seemed unthinkable now. Max was helping me get back in touch with my old self. I still moved ponderously, but walking with Max would set my sights on a ridge a little further than we had gone before. The worst part of my day was dropping him back to his owner. There was nothing I could do to stop the feeling of emptiness.

Then one afternoon Max’s owner broke the news that they were moving away as she had a new job. ‘I’m sorry. We’re leaving at the end of the month, so there’s plenty of time for you two to say goodbye,’ she explained.

Max joined me for work the next day as usual. We set off for a job and I found myself opening up about just how much he meant to me. ‘Wherever you end up, it’s important to know that you are loved. Not just by me, but everyone around you. Do you understand?’

A few weeks before they were due to leave, Max’s owner asked me the question I’d dreamed of hearing: ‘I want you to know that you can say no and we’ll forget all about it – but when we leave, would you like to keep Max?’

She knew what this meant to me and how happy Max was with me, too. My chest tightened and I blinked back tears. This was my dream, but I couldn’t do it without Angela’s blessing. She didn’t like dog hair, muddy paw prints or barking. I felt my hopes evaporate as I went home to speak to her but Angela looked at me in disbelief: ‘Call her right now. If it makes you happy, that’s fine by me.’ I barely slept the night before I was due to collect him. I fretted that it could still go wrong.

The next day, when I finally closed my front door behind us, I took a moment to compose myself. All of a sudden, this place that had been my refuge and my prison seemed completely different. Why? Because I had just crossed the threshold with a springer spaniel at my side, and this was his home now.

Kerry and Max at Buckingham Palace
Kerry and Max were invited to Buckingham Palace last year in recognition of their fundraising achievements.

As Angela crouched down beside Max, I said to her, ‘I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity. It means everything to me.’

‘I should be thanking Max.’ Angela gave me a fond smile. ‘He’s brought you home to me.’

***

Five years on, I am still in pain. It had taken me over half a day to drive to Ben Nevis. Everything from braking to turning caused shooting pains to travel from my neck, down my back and arms. It’s a fair distance to the summit and not the easiest hike. The terrain begins to change as we climb higher, the steps bigger and more testing. That’s when it kicks in what a big deal this is. I look at Max and remind myself this began at a point in my life that could not get any lower, and how close we are to reaching a high – and we carry on.

What had seemed unthinkable only recently has become a reality. We have scaled well over 1,300 metres. It’s taken us three and a half hours and I stand upon the summit a changed man who could do anything from this moment on. I feel elated, relieved and with so much love for my loyal friend. ‘Max,’ I declare, ‘we’ve made it.’

I’ve been so inspired by how much Max has helped my recovery that I wanted to help others in similar circumstances. Together we’ve raised more than £132,000 for mental health and animal charities. Even in the worst moments, I can always reach out for Max. If I am tired or in pain, he stays even closer. He has never let me down. He has saved me.

This is an edited extract from Max the Miracle Dog by Kerry Irving (Harper Collins, £12.99).