A seven-week-old puppy called Kelda stole a royal heart when assistance dogs charity Canine Partners welcomed the Earl and Countess of Wessex to its national training centre at Heyshott.
Kelda, a yellow labrador, is destined to transform the life of a disabled person when she grows up enough to be trained, but she and the countess struck up an immediate friendship.
“I want to take you home,” the royal visitor told her as Kelda, in the arms of volunteer Janet Whipp from Southbourne, said goodbye at the conclusion of Friday’s visit.
Prince Edward and his wife, paying a diamond jubilee visit to the area on behalf of the Queen, arrived by helicopter and were met by the Lord Lieutenant of West Sussex, Susan Pyper, who introduced the High Sheriff, Andrew Stephenson-Clarke, the chief constable of Sussex, Martin Richards, the chairman of West Sussex County Council, Mike Coleman, and Peter Clementson, chairman of Chichester District Council.
Canine Partners’ chairman, Simon Clare, and chief executive Andy Cook showed them round the centre and explained the work of the charity. Their first stop was the puppy training room and the countess, dressed in red, was soon some way behind her husband as she lingered there, crouching down to be introduced to the latest canine recruits by puppy training manager Julie Berkley.
In the training area for advanced dogs, German Shepherd-cross-labrador Zebo came over all shy as the earl stopped to watch him handing over a purse at a mock check-out – one of the tasks the assistance dogs are trained to perform to help their human partners on shopping trips. But he soon recovered his composure and got on with showing what he could do.
The royal visitors saw other aspects of the dogs’ repertoire before chatting to Sue Sherlock, from Ashington, and Sally Scott, from Eastbourne, who have been successfully partnered with dogs trained at the centre.
Mrs Sherlock, who suffers from Lyme disease and ME, said golden retriever Lancelot, who has been at her side for the past two years, had made a ‘fantastic’ difference to her life: “It has been absolutely transformed. I get out and about and meet people, which I wasn’t doing before.”
Jakki Powell, from Horsham, was undertaking her final 12-day partnering course before going home with her first assistance dog, Yates, another golden retriever. She explained to the royal couple how excited she was.
Mother-of-three Mrs Powell, who was there with her husband Mike, became disabled after an operation went wrong. She can walk slowly with the aid of a stick, and Yates has been trained to walk with her at her pace.
“The trainers have matched my needs with the dog’s abilities. I am also a teacher and he has been taken into schools to get used to it,” she added.
Andy Cook, the charity’s chief executive, said the visit had gone well.
“Prince Edward was very chatty and asked us some good questions. The countess was so keen to speak to everyone, all our volunteers and the dogs.
“She had met us before when she visited our puppy satellite centre in Bedford in 2009. One of the dogs she saw training here is a litter brother of a pup she met in Bedford, which interested her,” Mr Cook said.
But every dog has its day and the charity’s demonstration dog Doyle, a poodle-cross-golden retriever, wasn’t going to miss his.
He was chosen to present a bouquet to the countess as she and Prince Edward left – and then he took it back for an encore.
After their stop-off at Heyshott, the royal couple went on to the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton where they met Duke of Edinburgh Award participants and then visited Pallant House in Chichester and the Festival of Flowers at the cathedral.