No one could have predicted how life-changing it would be for Joel Sayer, then 13, from Newquay in Cornwall, when he and his autism assistance dog, Caddie, made the final of the Crufts hero dog competition.
A year later, the pair have inspired people all over the UK to raise funds for the charity Dogs for Good, and Joel – who has both autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – has managed an array of remarkable personal “firsts”.
His mum Janet, 53, explains: “When we first went into the Crufts arena there was a lot of light and noise. Joel was very pale and quiet and I didn’t think he would cope. But he did and, although they didn’t win, it changed his life. Crufts meant going to London for the first time, ordering a meal in a restaurant for the first time, and his first taxi ride, too. Things he could never do before. He became a teenager overnight. And most importantly, he found a voice.”
Joel didn’t speak until he was five years old and hated going outside. Then, in 2012, a medical professional suggested that an assistance dog might help him. Within 20 minutes of meeting two-year-old labrador cross golden retriever Caddie, Joel was out in the garden, throwing a ball. “We couldn’t believe it – my husband was in tears,” says Janet.
Caddie helps Joel with lots of tasks, and provides stability in a world Joel finds frightening: “When Joel can’t cope, he paces around, but Caddie will nudge him, Joel will start stroking him and he’ll come back into our world.”
“My life has changed dramatically since Crufts,” says Joel. “Not only did it make people understand me better, but it brought me and Caddie closer than ever.” Their story has now raised £32,000, enabling the charity to train and support more dogs through their lifetime to help families with a child who has autism.
“Fundraising is great, especially when it’s for someone who helped you,” says Joel. “It’s the best way of saying thank you.”
Crufts is on Thursday 8th and Friday 9th March. It airs on More4 both nights from 6.30pm and on Channel 4 from 8pm on Thursday and 7.30pm on Friday
Crufts Extra is on Wednesday-Friday at 3pm on Channel 4