Couple’s vital part in socialising puppies for lifeline roles

Ian and Heather Williams and Derek celebrating Derek’s second birthday at Support Dogs’ training centreIan and Heather Williams and Derek celebrating Derek’s second birthday at Support Dogs’ training centre
Ian and Heather Williams and Derek celebrating Derek’s second birthday at Support Dogs’ training centre
Providing a loving home to a puppy is satisfying, but to give the best start to a puppy who will go on to change someone’s life is extremely rewarding.

Ian and Heather Williams, who live in Staveley, Chesterfield, have been volunteer puppy socialisers for the national Support Dogs charity for almost two years.

They play a vital role in a puppy’s early life, helping to shape its behaviour at the start of a journey which will eventually see it become a life-changing support dog.

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Support Dogs, based in Sheffield, trains and provides dogs to help autistic children, adults with epilepsy and adults with a physical disability like multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy to lead safer, more independent lives.

Derek the Support DogDerek the Support Dog
Derek the Support Dog

As much-needed puppy socialisers, Ian and Heather provide a loving home and some basic training for pups until they’re old enough for the next stage of their training.

Having always had Border Collies and after losing their beloved pet Bess at the age of 15 in February 2021, the retired couple wanted to channel their energies into loving a dog, but at their later stage in life, they didn’t want such a long-term commitment.

Heather spotted a Support Dogs advert and the couple found out more about the role of a puppy socialiser, before making an application. On October 6, 2021, trainee support dog Derek, a handsome yellow Labrador, came into the couple’s lives.

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“He came up to us and we fell in love,” said Ian, a retired signmaker, who had also done IT work in schools. The couple were provided with a crate, toys, food and an information pack about Derek. Ian, a dad-of-two and grandfather-of-three, added: “Labradors are a whole new breed – they are definitely more food-orientated.”

But help is always at the end of the phone, or they pop into Support Dogs’ centre, in Sheffield for advice. Support Dogs also cover the cost of medical expenses and insurance. Ian, 66, and Heather, 63, took Derek out and about, getting him used to public transport, and accustomed to shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. “We love being out with the pup when it’s got the Support Dogs bandana on, and talking to people about what we are doing,” he added.

“People say you’re out walking, but you’re not – you’re working and continuously training. It’s a steep learning curve.”

During Derek’s early training, Heather, Ian and Derek attended puppy classes at Support Dogs’ training centre, with a puppy co-ordinator from the charity visiting their house every other week, ensuring they were comfortable in putting their training into practice.

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“When we look back at the progress we made in that first 12 weeks and the subsequent months, it’s fantastic,” added Ian.

As training progressed, the couple helped Derek to learn skills including picking objects up.

In February this year, Derek – who turned two on Monday, August 7 - left Ian and Heather, as he moved over to his trainer and went to live with volunteer foster carers, Mark and Becky Townsend in Dronfield.

“We were a little bit tearful,” said Ian.

“But from day one, we’ve always said he’s not ours – we are doing it for a good cause.”

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Ian had these words of advice for anyone thinking of becoming a Support Dogs puppy socialiser: “It’s not easy, it’s hard work. But it’s very, very rewarding – particularly now we know Derek is going to the epilepsy seizure alert programme.

“We’d like to thank the staff at Support Dogs for all their help, guidance and support during Derek’s training, especially Bronte, Karlie, Holly, Emily and Lottie.”

The couple, who provide holiday cover and emergency cover to look after dogs when people are away, are looking forward to taking on another puppy in November.

*Support Dogs is hosting information sessions so people can find out more about becoming a puppy socialiser. Criteria includes living within 45 minutes’ drive of Support Dogs’ Sheffield base, having a secure garden and being home for the majority of the day.

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The next session takes place on Monday, August 14 at 1pm at the Imperial Rooms, in Imperial Road, Matlock.

A session will run from 1pm on Tuesday, August 15 at Support Dogs’ training centre, at Jessops Riverside, Sheffield.

Further sessions are at 1pm on Monday, September 11 at the centre, at 1pm on Monday, September 18 at the George & Dragon in Wentworth, Rotherham and 1pm on Monday, October 16 at Harley’s Bar in Staveley, Chesterfield.

To find out more, please visit or call 0114 261 7800.