National charity with modest beginnings in Sheffield is dedicated to increasing independence and quality of life for people with challenging conditions.
It’s been 25 years since Support Dogs launched in the city.
Back then, the Sheffield charity had just three dogs, and its home was a small hut in the grounds of Lodge Moor Hospital, on the outskirts of the city.
Today, Support Dogs is unrecognisable. Now a national charity, its staff of 25 has successfully trained and supplied hundreds of assistance dogs to people all the way from Portsmouth to Dundee.
The special partnerships it has helped to create, between canines and clients, have completely transformed the lives of hundreds of people with epilepsy and autism, as well as those with physical disabilities. And we think they’re simply amazing. That’s why, this week, The Star is launching its ‘Pounds For Pups’ campaign, to highlight the excellent work Support Dogs is doing in the city, and across the region. We’re asking our readers to help us raise £5,000 to fund one dog’s training – and to help to change somebody’s life in the process.
Support Dogs is dedicated to increasing independence and quality of life for children and adults with some truly challenging conditions.
Through its three training programmes – for disability support dogs, autism dogs and seizure alert dogs – the charity uses an entirely reward-based system to teach special dogs to carry out a wide range of tasks that make life safer and easier for its clients.
These include giving a 100 per cent reliable alert before an epileptic seizure, keeping a child with autism safe and happy, loading and unloading washing machines, opening and closing doors, fetching medication and going for help if required.
And while the day-to-day impact of this is clear, the wider effects on the mental wellbeing of the client, partners, parents and family is also a vital factor that shouldn’t be under-estimated.
“In its early days Support Dogs concentrated its efforts in training dogs to help people solely with physical disabilities,” explains chief executive Rita Howson, who has been with the charity for 24 years.
“It was in 1993, while training a dog for a disabled woman with epilepsy, that the charity decided to also train the dog to predict the woman’s seizures. Within three months the dog was giving a 30-minute warning of every seizure. Truly life changing.”
In 1997 Support Dogs set up its first national training centre, dedicated to animal behaviourist John Fisher, whose unique approach to dog training formed the foundation of the training methods applied by Support Dogs, and also influenced the development of the seizure alert dog training programme.
In 2008, following on from a successful pilot study, the charity launched a new initiative to improve the quality of life for children with autism, with its Autism Assistance Dogs.
These dogs have been proven to reduce children’s stress and reduce the sensory overload that prevent many from easily leaving the house and accessing community and health services.
Support Dogs doesn’t have its own dog breeding programme, but takes dogs from rescue charities such as Dogs’ Trust, Battersea Dogs’ Home and Blue Cross, as well as those from the Guide Dogs breeding programmes, and even council dog pounds.
For its disability assistance programme the charity trains a client’s own pet pooches to become their disability assistance dog.
Over the past 25 years, as well as some incredible achievements, the charity has also survived some major challenges, not least when its national training centre in Brightside, opened by its honorary president Angela Rippon in 2005, was devastated by the flood that hit Sheffield two years later.
It took a year to recover and rebuild, thanks largely to the generosity of the public in response to the Flood Fund Disaster appeal, and the support of South Yorkshire Police Dog Training Department, which offered the charity the use of its training facilities while the training centre was rebuilt.
As the charity reaches its 25th year it also celebrates its first expansion to its training centre in over 12 years, as it moves into additional premises. This recent expansion of its centre in Sheffield will mean more scope for many more dogs and partnerships to be trained each year. Although this, of course, means its need to raise funds is greater than ever before, with the charity reliant entirely on voluntary donations.
In 2012 Rita – who originally started as volunteer with the charity – took over as chief executive after years as a dog trainer and instructor.
Since then she has seen the charity’s profile and reputation grow, with the Earl and Countess of Scarbrough and Elaine Paige OBE giving their support to the charity as patrons.
And the demand for its work has also grown – between 2015 and 2016 the number of daily requests for support doubled to more than 3,000 a year.
Nearly 25 years on Rita is aware, not only of the massive difference these dogs can make, but also the growing waiting list of people desperate for the support of an assistance dog.
“Our clients have such difficult lives, take on the big responsibility of having and working with a dog, then go out and stand in the rain to fundraise for us,” she says.
“I’m in awe of them, and what they do to support us. They know, first-hand, the difference that a dog can make, and yet there are so many other people out there who need our help too.
“So while we celebrate our first fantastic 25 years we won’t rest on our laurels, and our past achievements.
“Here’s to the next 25 years!”
How to help
Visit Donate - Support Dogs to find out more about how you can help us reach our £5,000 goal. Alternatively, text SDogs15 (and the amount you’d like to give) to 70070, or call 0114 2617800.
Visit Support Dogs to find out more about the charity.