“The trainers would have a Zoom call with the dog!” - How this Sheffield charity deployed unusual methods to navigate the pandemic

You’re in lockdown. You haven’t met anyone for weeks, mental health keeps getting mentioned and now you’re talking to a dog on a Zoom call.

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 2:19 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 2:20 pm

Have you gone barking mad?

Not if you are a volunteer for the Sheffield-based Support Dogs charity.

The national charity has its office in Brightside and it trains assistance dogs for children and adults affected by autism, epilepsy and physical disability.

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Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is  Rita Howson, chief executive. Rita is pictured with Bear who is a support dog in training. Picture: Chris Etchells
Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Rita Howson, chief executive. Rita is pictured with Bear who is a support dog in training. Picture: Chris Etchells

When lockdown happened, chief executive Rita Howson was faced with the problem of how volunteers could continue to train support dogs with no access to the animals.

So, like so many others, charity workers discovered the world of Zoom.

Rita, aged 53, smiles as she says: “The trainers would have a Zoom call with the dog!” Yes, the trainer on one screen, the dog and its keeper on the other.

“It meant they could keep the dog training.

Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Rita Howson, chief executive. Picture: Chris Etchells

“The volunteers got creative and started setting up scenarios involving role play on Zoom or WhatsApp.

“They could give commands but also support over behaviour issues. It was really tough and scary because a lot of money was invested in those dogs and they won’t make it if they don’t have the right socialisation

“What we did wasn’t perfect because you can’t beat actually being on a bus for example, but we did the best we could.”

So for the bus scenario, it meant setting up chairs in rows and walking the dog to an empty seat, under the instruction of a trainer, making sure the dog stayed calm and lay at the feet of the would-be owner.

Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Becky Cochran with Bear. Picture: Chris Etchells

The charity trains puppies until they are 14 months old. Playing and socialising is key because if the dog cannot experience the outside world, its development can be affected.

“Lockdown was a very worrying and scary time,” says mum-of-two Rita. No wonder, it costs £30,000 to train a dog.

And like all charities, there was fundraising. “In lockdown, the last thing people think of is donating money and everyone’s attention was rightly on the NHS.”

So having done training sessions by Zoom, they did the same for Meet The Animal sessions, a pitch to corporate sponsors. “They found it a great break from working to watch dogs for 30 minutes.”

Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Claire Campbell with support dog Lawson. Picture: Chris Etchells

These happy moments are a far cry from the moment lockdown was announced.

Rita, who was born in Gleadless Valley and now lives in Deepcar, says: “The office closed, everyone was sent home and we had to make plans on how to deal with the phones and emails. I was worried about the situation and how it would impact our clients.

“We weren’t expecting something like this.”

They had experienced hardship when the office flooded twice, first in 2007 and then again in November 2019. The last flood hit the admin and fundraising parts of the building.

“We had to put stuff in storage and base ourselves upstairs. It was disrupting but we were just unpacking and having things delivered from storage when we went into lockdown.

“That made us work remotely so things were set in place. We were shaken because we didn’t think it was going to happen.

Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured are Claire Campbell with Lawson, Rita Howson, chief executive, and Becky Cochran, with Bear. Picture: Chris Etchells

“At first we thought it would just be for three or four weeks so we thought we would be fine, but that changed and we got used to remote working.”

Her hope was to come out of lockdown in the same place as when they went in - level-pegging she calls it. Sadly, income dropped by 40% and some dogs could not complete their training, but Rita is optimistic.

“We’re trying to look to the future. We want to expand and grow, to invest in the future cautiously. We’re still recruiting staff to grow the training and having puppy intakes.

“It’s an exciting time but in the back of your mind being cautious because we still don’t know what is going to happen.

The charity gets 4,500 inquiries a year for dogs, but they can only provide between 15 and 20. “It’s heartbreaking. We get into phone calls with people who are desperate for help and we know we can’t reach a lot of them. It is relentless, but one story of connection where a partnership happens and the difference that dog can make is what keeps us going.”

Mum-of-two Rita has always worked with animals, taking an animal care course at Shirecliffe College, and joining Support Dogs a year after it was founded in 1992, first as a volunteer, then working her way up from training dogs to running the charity. She was presented with a Civic Award by Sheffield’s Mayor in 2018 for outstanding service to the city, recognising her work in helping members of the local community. Her aspiration is ambitious. “I want Support Dogs to become a household name,” says Rita. “We want to gain greater awareness for the work that our amazing dogs do, and by expanding and growing, to be able to offer that life-changing help and support to greater numbers of people with a variety of medical conditions.”

By the end of 20201 Rita hopes Support Dogs will be able to expand its activities and take on more dogs to train by moving into a new training centre with more space and more land, in order to reduce the backlog of people waiting for its services due to the pandemic, and to meet rising demand.

“Support Dogs is working hard to overcome the terrible impact of the past year - on our clients whose physical and mental health have been affected, and on our waiting lists of families in desperate need of our support and whose progress through training has been impacted by lockdown.

“We also hope to be able to start running live fundraising events after more than a year of holding virtual fundraisers, and finally getting back to some sort of normal,” she adds.

“The pandemic also had a serious impact on our income after 12 months of limited events and fundraising activity. We are all hoping that 2021 proves to be a year where we can focus on giving our vital support to those who need it most. The wonderful kindness of our supporters and volunteers over the past year who have enabled us to continue our work has been hugely appreciated.”

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Support Dogs is looking to the future with some confidence, and has recently recruited some additional, well-experienced trustees onto its board to help it meet its ambitious aspirations

Earlier this year it appointed a new chairman of its board of trustees, David Hobson, manager of the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, with 40 years of experience of and expertise in the property and construction industry project under his belt.

And Mark Holmshaw, former European President and CEO of multinational imaging organisation Canon Medical Systems, has also joined the board.

Mr Holmshaw hopes to bring his business development skills to the Support Dogs’ board and use his influence as a former CEO of a major multinational to open doors to large organisations and potential sponsors.

Three other new trustees from healthcare, marketing, and finance industries are also bringing their specialist knowledge to the table.

All this and Rita, who was a torch bearer in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, is now a grandma. “I love it. She’s my world, I can’t have her enough. The difference is at the end of the day, you can give her back!”

Maybe it’s time we gave back to Support Dogs. Visit www.supportdogs.org.uk or call 0114 261 7800.

Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Bear who is a support dog in training. Picture: Chris Etchells
Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Rita Howson, chief executive. Rita is pictured with Bear who is a support dog in training. Picture: Chris Etchells
Support Dogs charity based in Sheffield. Pictured is Bear who is a support dog in training. Picture: Chris Etchells