It’s somewhat of a cliché to talk about dogs being man’s best friend, but in the case of Kerry Irving and his springer spaniel Max, it is very much true. Not only do they share companionship as they traverse the undulating terrain and picturesque scenery near their Lakeland home, but Kerry credits Max with saving his life. This is the story behind Max the Miracle Dog.
It is a story that takes in great despair and great joy, and which has now been documented in a new book by Kerry, Max the Miracle Dog. Northern Life chatted to him about how and why he came to befriend and adopt Max and how that affected his life in ways he never expected.
But before we come to Max, there is the accident that started this whole chain of events. Kerry recalls: “It’s 2006 and I’m driving home in my car, queuing up in traffic and a truck ran into the back of our car. My doctors said ‘two weeks and you’ll be back up on your feet and you’ll be fine. Standard whiplash. ’ But after the two weeks I got worse, which was very frustrating for me because I’m an outdoors person. I basically live outdoors. Cycling, hiking, walking, all that stuff – on a dry day, I’m outside.
“Suddenly I find myself housebound, passed from pillar to post, trying to find that one person who would cure me, but I couldn’t find that person; they didn’t exist. I had operations on my neck and shoulder to try and alleviate the pain, but it just didn’t work. Gradually I spiralled down into depression because I couldn’t get out and do the sort of things I wanted to do.”
Being stuck in one place was a totally new experience for Kerry, who was clocking up around 600 miles on his bike before the accident, during jaunts around his home in Keswick and the surrounding Lakes area.
“Everywhere you look, you’ve got beautiful scenery, fantastic trails, mountain biking, road biking, walking and camping out in the fells” says Kerry, “And to suddenly not have that, even though it’s accessible and on your doorstep, but to not be able to enjoy that is incredibly frustrating. And to see friends going out and enjoying it and you’re not able to, really got me down.”
It was at this point, Kerry admits, he contemplated suicide. Despite his wife, friends and family being there to support him, the depression had taken hold and despair had set in. “In my head, I thought I would be better off not being there and they would be better off without me. I was holding everybody back and spoiling everybody’s fun.” With a daily intake of 30 super strength tablets in order to function and having had to give up his sales job, things seemed bleak.
Thankfully, a strange twist of fate was about to reveal itself and gradually lift him from his gloom just as he had reached his darkest hour. Kerry’s wife, Angela, suggested he leave the house to visit the local shop. “It was 50 to 100 metres away and it was absolute panic to do that on my own,” remembers Kerry, “but I did. And that is when I met a dog in a yard with his little nose pushed through the gate. I’ve always had dogs, loved animals and nature, and I stopped and said hello to this dog. He looked at me with a knowing look and a glint in his eye, and I was hooked!”
From that moment on, Kerry’s motivation for attempting the physically and mentally taxing task of leaving the house was to see Max the springer spaniel. “When the dog was there, it was lovely, but sometimes he wasn’t. He was locked in the house. And that caused me great anxiety because all I wanted to do was see the dog.”
After a while he plucked up the courage to ask Max’s owner if he could take him for a walk and she agreed. In fact, she was tied up much of the day tending to her ill father and Kerry’s offer helped her out, just as it helped him.
At first Kerry would take Max just a few metres further than the yard, sitting on a wall and whiling away the hours chatting to the spaniel. Over time, these walks grew ever so slightly longer, until they finally made it to the church yard. “That was a real breakthrough” he laughs, “because we got to sit on a bench! It had a view over the lake, looking towards Catbells [a 451-metre high fell beside Derwent Water]. It was there that I thought ‘maybe life’s not too bad’ , and I made him a promise that one day we would climb Catbells. But it took me maybe six years to climb up a hill.”
Kerry puts this slow progress down to several factors. His physical injuries clearly played a part, but also anxiety, a lack of confidence and even embarrassment at not being able to walk as quickly or purposefully as previously. “You kind of feel like everybody is watching you or asking, ‘what’s wrong with that guy?’” He admits that he didn’t want people to know about his injuries and the reasons why he wasn’t skipping up the fells like once he might have done.
The pair started to walk ever further, but Kerry was dealt a blow when Max’s owners told him they were moving away. However, after some discussion, they decided that Max was better off with Kerry and they kindly let him adopt his walking companion. During this time, Kerry retrained as a locksmith, a job that allowed him to take Max along with him in the van. “From that day on, we were inseparable,” says Kerry, “every minute of the day, we were together and that changed everything.”
Kerry began documenting his walks with Max with photographs on social media and they soon became popular around the world. Without knowing the story of how and why these Lakeland walks were so important to Kerry and his dog, people started messaging, telling him they were coming to Keswick, and asking if they could meet Max. At this point, Kerry added another springer, Paddy, to the entourage, and the popularity of the posts skyrocketed. Kerry and his dogs were awarded a tourism award in recognition of the work they had done to promote the area and Max was named the canine ambassador
TV appearances followed, with Kerry and the dogs being filmed walking up Catbells for the Julia Bradbury ITV show, Britain’s Top 100 Walks.Having not previously told anyone about his depression and how Max had saved him, Kerry was now keen to open up in order to help anyone else who may have also been suffering in silence. A magazine article gave him the opportunity to tell his story, which he admits he found “absolutely terrifying.” Kerry says “I was suddenly going to admit it to everybody. And although Max has become quite a character around Keswick, I’d never said anything about me. Mind you, I thought nobody would read it, but three days after it was published somebody sent me a message through Facebook and they were standing in Euston station and there was a copy with Max on the front cover!”
Another TV spot followed on Britain’s Top 100 Dogs, where Kerry told the full story of the accident, the depression, meeting Max and the transformation that encounter brought to his life. This appearance led to 10,000 messages flooding into Max and Kerry, some telling them about the dogs that helped them, others saying that seeing Kerry’s dogs online had seen them through difficult times too. “Suddenly, you realise the power of what one picture posted on social media can mean for other people,” says Kerry. Since Kerry began documenting the duo’s daily adventures up in the Lake District, Max has become an internet sensation with over 120k followers across social media. This year, Max also received the royal paw-print of approval from the Duchess of Cambridge after becoming the first registered therapy dog to be allowed into Buckingham Palace.
Kerry continues to document his adventures with Max, Paddy and new addition Harry, promoting a positive message encouraging people with depression or suspected depression to talk to others about it and share their concerns. They also lead charity walks, raising around £133,000 so far for various charities, and promote mental health awareness in schools.