‘My canine carer can even tell when I’m about to faint’

After years of ill health nearly destroyed her, Libbi Mattick rediscovered her freedom thanks to her assistance dog Sparrow. She tells Kate Thompson about the amazing four-legged saviour who fetches help, brings her medicine – and does the laundry

Libbi Mattick is in her bedroom hanging up clothes. Her golden retriever Sparrow is curled up asleep on the floor nearby.

As Libbi reaches up into the cupboard, she feels the familiar surge of light-headedness and nausea. Panic clogs her throat as shapes shift in her peripheral vision and the floor rushes up to meet her. She wants to scream for help, but her heart feels like it’s exploding. Instead, she wrenches a black silicone band from her wrist. ‘Go,’ she whispers. In the distance, she hears her partner Irving’s voice. ‘Show me, where is she?’

Libbi, Irving and Sparrow at Disney World Florida, 2018.

Sparrow arrived in Libbi’s home in Surrey on Christmas Eve 2018. After a gruelling 13-year battle with ME, Libbi was virtually housebound; unable to venture out alone for fear of being overwhelmed by the exhaustion, headaches, panic attacks, fainting episodes and seizures which dominated her life. ‘Aged 15, I came down with a virus called labyrinthitis and never recovered,’ explains Libbi. ‘My life imploded. I went from being a fun-loving, healthy girl, who adored ballet, to someone who needed help walking up the stairs,’ says Libbi, now 29.

Over the next two years Libbi’s body was overwhelmed by ME and a resulting eating disorder, and she marked her 18th birthday on a hospital ward. ‘My weight had dropped by half and I began having seizures, which were diagnosed as epilepsy. It was terrifying. My education suffered as I couldn’t manage full days at school, I had to give up dancing and most of my friends drifted away. It was as if my body had turned against me. I was still a teenager but I felt like a 90-year-old.’

Sparrow at work

The physical trauma had a knock-on effect on Libbi’s mental health. ‘I struggled with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. I also developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder.’ As her peers went off to university, Libbi could barely summon up the energy to wash her own hair. To add to her pain, at that time, many in the medical profession still believed that ME was a psychological condition, with sufferers frequently made to feel as though they could – and should – snap out of it. But Libbi’s stay in hospital did have a positive side-effect. ‘In outpatient treatment afterwards, I met a brilliant eating-disorder nurse who understood that ME was a massive factor in all my problems and she gave me tools to cope.’ The nurse taught Libbi the importance of keeping a diary to identify patterns in her illness. ‘Through this I learned that if my ME flared up, it would often be followed by a low spell in my mental health – and that the two were linked. This gave me back some feeling of control over my body.’

Armed with her new coping strategies, Libbi set about trying to reclaim her life. At 24 she met Irving Walker, who played in a band and was understanding about her condition. ‘Irv was kind. He knew that some days I didn’t have the strength to watch him play, whereas other days I would feel up to trips out. He never judged me or put pressure on me.’

In 2017, Libbi travelled with Irving to meet his family in Florida, and it was on a trip to Disney World that she stumbled upon a scene that would change her life. In among the whirl and the excitement of the place, Libbi noticed a golden retriever. Not only was the dog not reacting to the chaos, it was staring attentively at its owner as if she were the only person in the park. Libbi couldn’t help commenting on the dog’s calm behaviour and was then told that this was a dog being put through special training by a company called Expanding Intelligence Dog Training. One day, the trainer told her, this dog might become an assistance dog, as they are known, and could save someone’s life.

‘Apart from Guide Dogs for the Blind, I’d never heard of dogs who could help individuals with physical and emotional problems,’ confesses Libbi. It was a revelatory moment. When she returned to Florida later that year, Libbi went to meet Cat Gentile and Krystal Garcia, the founders of Expanding Intelligence, to see if she too might benefit from an assistance dog. They introduced her to puppy Sparrow and her brother Fresno who were both in training. ‘It was love at first sight,’ recalls Libbi of Sparrow. ‘The bond between us was instant. She kept happily falling asleep in my arms and I didn’t ever want to put her down. It might sound odd, but we have very similar personalities. Sparrow weighs things up carefully and is naturally reserved, just like me.’

In March 2018, Libbi headed back to Florida and it was clear that Sparrow was a perfect match for her. The dog now started person-specific training, including learning to identify the early signs of stress and anxiety in Libbi. She also learned how to get Libbi out of a crowd and to retrieve drinks and a medication bag. ‘When Irving and I went back in the autumn, Sparrow, then 14 months old, squeaked with excitement when we walked in. I was speechless with joy.’ On Christmas Eve, they brought Sparrow back to their home in Sunbury-on-Thames.

‘She is constantly scanning me to read the subtle signs that my body gives off,’ Libbi explains. ‘When she senses my health deteriorating [changes in heart rate, breathing and cortisol levels], she will nudge or jump at me to tell me to sit before I fall, and then lie across my legs in a grounding technique called deep pressure therapy to help me recover. This helps the blood pump better around my body and calms the physiological symptoms of panic and anxiety.

‘If I’m not aware an attack is developing, she will paw at me or lick my hand, and I know
I need to manage it before it becomes an emergency. Sparrow is also trained to take
a silicone band I wear on my wrist to indicate I need help if I’ve collapsed or fainted. She will show it to Irving, or anyone else at home, and they then know to follow her to find me.’

Sparrow can also help empty the washing machine, pick up dropped items and close cupboards on command, meaning Libbi doesn’t have to bend down, an action that can trigger fainting episodes. ‘I never used to be able to go out alone. Now, thanks to Sparrow, I have independence.’

Two years on, the bond between them has deepened: Libbi only needs to make a flicker of a movement for the dog to understand what is needed of her. In turn, Sparrow alerts Libbi to when she is overdoing things. She is her constant companion.

Libbi admits that she gets frustrated when people want to pet Sparrow even though she’s wearing a vest showing she is an assistance dog. The problem, explains Libbi, is that she needs Sparrow to focus on her, and interactions with other people distract her. ‘We don’t have enough awareness of assistance dogs,’ she says.

Libbi would also like to see more understanding of ME and the devastating effect it can have on the UK’s estimated 250,000 sufferers. ‘Chronic illness is complex and the impact is far-reaching,’ Libbi says. ‘My entire identity is bound up in an invisible illness that cloaks every area of my life. But Sparrow has enabled me to embrace the positives.
She is my shadow, keeping me safe.’

Go to assistancedogs.org.uk and meassociation.org.uk for more information