The Story of a Life-saving Therapy Dog

The Story of a Life-saving Therapy Dog

  • Erin Swanson

Kerry Irving is a Ruffwear Ambassador, and so was his life-saving therapy dog, Max. Max passed away in April of 2022, remembered by his loved ones and thousands of loyal fans. We caught up with Kerry to hear the incredible story behind this miracle dog’s legacy.

“I met Max at the right time.”

Kerry was a self-professed outdoor addict hooked on the high of adventure, often cycling 120 miles and hiking 20 miles – in one day. Until suddenly, he wasn’t. A serious car accident in 2006 left him housebound with excruciating back pain and limited mobility. Life as he knew it vanished.

The longer he took to heal, the darker his mental state became – trapped each day in a loop of never-ending pain, isolation, and panic. His daily schedule revolved around taking 27 medications, terrified he’d miss a dose. A man who once felt motivated to hit the trails all day now couldn’t motivate himself to eat, let alone get out of bed.

Self-destructive thoughts kicked in. He slipped deeper into depression and ultimately considered ending his life. Little did he know, a new friend with spotted fur and empathetic eyes would save his life.

Meeting Max

A Springer Spaniel dog sits on a log in the grass and smiles.

Kerry suffered this physical and mental anguish for two years. Then one afternoon, his wife asked him to take a walk to the store to buy milk. The simple request sent Kerry into full-blown panic.

Deeply self-conscious of his gait, Kerry limped and shuffled out the door. In a twist of fate, he went to a different shop than he’d normally choose.

On this new route, Kerry spotted a Springer Spaniel whose coat had seen better days – a true garden dog, with the smell and dirt to prove it. Although only one-year-old at the time, there was wisdom in his bright eyes.

In the moment, Kerry thought, “What a sad little dog, all by himself.” Looking back, Kerry wonders if Max was thinking, “What a sad man, all by himself.” There was a spark between them. Both cooped up – one in a garden, one in a house.

Kerry went back to see Max on his return route. And the next day, he mustered up the courage to venture outside again. His goal for the day? Visit Max.

The Walk That Started It All

One day, Kerry asked Max’s owner if he could take him for a walk. Max’s tail swooshed uncontrollably.

50 meters into their stroll, Kerry needed to sit down and rest. Max sat next to him, simply content to explore beyond the bounds of his garden. They hadn’t gone far, but they both felt free.

That moment, something clicked. “This could be good for both of us.”

Finding the Courage to Connect

A Springer Spaniel dog lays in the grass.

As they walked together each day, Kerry began to open up to Max – something he hadn’t felt comfortable doing with people. Max listened without judgment, helping Kerry take the first step in telling his story out loud.

Still, Kerry hid behind Max. He appreciated that passerbys focused on the friendly pup, and not his limp. But the more people Max drew in, the more Kerry began to speak to people, too.

Reaching New Heights

Kerry and Max stopped to rest at their local church yard on one of their walks. Max jumped up on the bench beside Kerry, leaning affectionately. They looked out at the green rolling hills of Catbells across the waters of the Lake District, and Kerry told Max, “I’ll take you up there one day. That’s our goal.”

A Springer Spaniel dog jumps high in the air while on a hike.

But that was just the start of Kerry’s mental and physical recovery. He was officially back outdoors challenging himself again, with Max by his side. Six years after they set their goal, the two of them tackled the Ben Nevis summit, the highest mountain in the UK. Standing above the clouds together that day, triumphant, Kerry thought: If I can climb Ben Nevis, I can do anything.

A new chapter had begun. “I felt like a king. It was Max that made me feel that way. The fact that we got up that mountain together. It was the start of our life together.”

A Facebook Star is Born

A Springer Spaniel goes on a hike in England's Lake District.

Despite spending each day with Kerry, Max still lived with his original family. Each night Kerry dropped off Max, he’d feel heartbroken. But when Max’s family had to move away in 2014, they decided Max would have a better life with Kerry in the country. “That's the moment I began to enjoy life again.”

Kerry’s clients in his new job as a locksmith began asking where he and Max hiked together, so Kerry posted pictures of their adventures on his business’s Facebook page. Before long, clients were more interested in Max than anything else. One client suggested, “Why don’t you start a Facebook page about Max and your hikes together?”

With the creation of this Facebook page in 2016, “Max Out in the Lake District,” Max’s fame grew and grew.

Kerry asked his followers, “Does anyone want to go on a walk with Max and me?” Responses flooded in and a hundred people showed up, raising 1 000 pounds for a rescue shelter.

This kicked off their fundraising journey. (Over the next 5 years, the duo and their 300 000 followers would go on to raise nearly half a million pounds for charity.) Kerry and Max had tapped into a human need – the need for connection, fresh air, and time spent with dogs.

The Interview That Changed Everything

A Springer Spaniel dog named Max is on the cover of "Lancashire Life" magazine.

During the first year of charity walks, no one knew Kerry’s story. He worried no one would want to walk with him if they knew of his mental health struggles.

But in 2017, an interview with a magazine in Yorkshire changed everything. The interviewer asked a question that led Kerry to share his struggle with mental health. Kerry’s anxiety crept in, and he asked her not to publish the piece. She promised no one he knew would see it – Yorkshire was a two-hour drive away from his home in Keswick, after all.

He dragged his feet on the decision for 7 months. A cycling friend who’d also had an accident and suffered from depression offered a different perspective, “What’s the worst your followers can do? If you tell your story, you’ll feel better. And it might help someone else.”

Kerry gave the green light to publish, praying no one would see it. Until he got a message from a friend: “Max is on the front cover of a magazine in London.”

His secret was out.

Kerry braced himself for criticism, waiting for followers to drop him. But that didn’t happen. Not one person had a bad reaction. Kerry breathed a sigh of relief and carried on.

The Power of a Dog

A man sits with his dog.

This experience inspired Kerry to speak to a wider audience about mental health. He went on a TV Program for Britain’s Top 100 Dogs. As he sat with Max cuddled up beside him, he shared how Max saved his life. The TV crew members were in tears.

“It was the best thing I ever did. I had over 10 000 messages, emails, letters, and phone calls. People were stopping Max and me on the street. Truck drivers parked their trucks and ran over to say thank you. If it hadn’t been for Max, I wouldn’t have been here to share my story. That’s the power of dogs.”

There For Those In Need

A man sits on a hill with his two Springer Spaniel dogs in the Lake District of England.

Once Kerry owned his story and spoke up, he empowered others to do the same. Kerry and Max created a safe space for their community to share their own stories – stories people hadn’t had the courage to speak out loud before. Those of abuse, grief, depression, and more.

And just like Max had empowered Kerry to keep going, Max kept his followers going through their darkest times.

In one letter, a woman shared that she had lost her daughter and three grandchildren in a road accident. Through her grief, she watched videos of Max. Even in her deep despair, she had Max to look forward to.

Lying in a hospital bed, an elderly patient with terminal cancer smiled each day at Max’s photos. Another woman met Max and dropped to the floor, crying, as she whispered the trauma she’d kept secret her entire life into Max’s ear.

On school visits, children who’d been terrified of dogs had Max resting on their knees. One child even worked up the courage to learn to swim, because she’d seen a video of Max swimming in a lake.

A Springer Spaniel dog jumps into a lake for a swim.

Kerry reflects, “It was an absolute privilege to be with him.”

Max’s Last Charity Walk

In early April of 2022, Kerry held a small charity walk. Now 14-years-old, Max’s health was declining. For Max’s followers, this walk was a chance for them to say goodbye. 150 people and their dogs turned up to do the walk, and many more came to get a picture and say thank you to Max.

One woman shared her past struggle with attempted suicide. When recovering in the hospital, she had come across Max’s videos and Kerry’s book. They inspired her to get a 9-month-old dog, and it was her Max. She thanked Max for saving her life.

In fact, 9 times on that walk, someone said to Max, “Thank you for saving my life.”

Saying Goodbye

The day after the charity walk, Max’s health worsened. It was time to say goodbye.

A dog rests on a bench with the hills of England's Lake District behind him.

Kerry planned Max’s ideal day. He took him to the churchyard where they used to walk. As they sat together on the bench, like they had so many times before, Kerry talked to Max. He thanked him for all he’d done.

Kerry felt like Max knew what he was saying. And Kerry knew what Max was saying to him. “You can go on your own now. You’re alright. I’ve done my job. You’re strong enough. And you’ve got two other dogs that are going to carry this on.” Dogs talk to those who listen. And Kerry listened.

Three Springer Spaniel dogs sit on a hill while on a hike.

He took Max on a tour of his favorite places – bacon and sausages for breakfast, his most-loved walks, and a swim in the lake. They headed home so Max could have quality time with the two other dogs Kerry and his wife now had, Paddy and Harry.

It was in a beautiful woodland Max and Kerry had visited many times that they said their final goodbyes. Kerry planned for his two friends, a vet and a nurse, to meet him, his wife, and the three dogs. They walked out to a peaceful spot where Max could hear birds chirping and the gentle lapping waters of the lake.

Max’s loved ones gathered around him as he laid across Kerry’s lap. As Max passed on, all Kerry could do was cry. They sat there stroking Max, talking about this amazing little dog. Just then, the sun broke through the trees.

Shapes in the Clouds

An image of a sunset with the shape of a dog in the clouds.

When Kerry received Max's ashes, he saw the shape of a dog in the clouds.

The following evening, Kerry hiked with Harry and Paddy under a dark, brooding sky. A woman from the crematorium arrived to deliver Max’s ashes. As she handed them to Kerry, a bright orange sunset appeared – and there in the clouds, was the shape of a dog.

“That was the best exit for Max. He did more for people in his life than most people do in a lifetime. You can’t repay a dog for that and thank him enough for that. The legacy of him will carry on.”

Look to the Sunset, and Max Will Be There

Kerry invited friends for a celebration of Max’s life. Sophie, a 12-year-old girl who is dyslexic and was struggling at school, attended with her family. Kerry used to bring Max to Sophie’s school to comfort her before the day began.

When Max got sick, Kerry knew he had to tell Sophie. She was devastated. During Max’s last 3 nights, she came to see him and held him tight. Kerry didn’t want Max’s special relationship with Sophie to end.

At the celebration of life, Sophie shared a letter she’d written to Max about how much she loved him. They buried it with him, along with a few treats and a stick. Kerry had an idea. One of his remaining dogs, Harry, is a very gentle soul. He asked Sophie afterward, “Can you put Max’s orange collar on Harry?”

Minutes later, Sophie was petting Harry and looking into his eyes the same way she had with Max. She was delighted.

An image of a sunset with the shape of a paw in the clouds.

Kerry saw this paw in the clouds at Max's Celebration of Life.

Kerry reflects, “That collar is not just an orange collar; it’s a way to remember Max. Every morning, you can think of Max when you get up and watch the sunrise. There are always orange skies, just like Max’s orange collar. Fill the day with great things. Get outside. Do something completely different. If you’re ever feeling lost or alone, look at the sunset and think of Max. And he’ll be there.”

While no one can replace Max, Kerry knows that Max will live on through the people he gave life back to.

Max was the first pet to be given the PDSA’s Order of Merit Award, and he is immortalized with a bronze statue in Hope Park in Keswick, England. Kerry now continues the fundraising work he and Max started with his two dogs, Harry and Paddy. To honour Max’s legacy, Ruffwear UK is donating 5% of all sales of the Campfire Orange Front Range Harness, Leash, and Collar collection to charity.

You can follow Kerry and his dogs’ journey on Facebook and read more about Kerry and Max’s story in Kerry’s book, Max the Miracle Dog: The Heart-warming Tale of a Life-saving Friendship.

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