Heartwarming stories at this year’s Support Dogs Graduation & Awards in Sheffield
Emma Mills received the Support Dogs’ Client Partnership Award at the recent virtual ceremony, after shouldering more difficulties than most over the past few years.
The 37-year-old is the main carer for her two young children, both of whom have autism, having given up her job in the police.
Last year her husband became seriously ill with a life-threatening lung condition and remains chronically unwell and unable to work.
The shining light in the family’s life is their autism assistance dog Willow. She has enabled their son Sam to leave the house safely, and massively reduced his depression and anxiety.
But this year lockdown plunged the family into yet another period of uncertainty and worry.
“Now we’re telling him he can’t go out, that it isn’t safe, and that we have to stay away from people,” says Emma.
“It feels like we’ve undone a lot of the good work that had been done in the past two years."
But through it all, Emma says the constant reassuring presence and support of Willow has proved to be a real life-saver – the one constant in an increasingly uncertain world.
Support Dog judges said: “We think Sam’s mum, Emma, and the way she copes calmly, cheerfully and without complaint is equally worthy of recognition.
“Emma has been a fantastic ambassador and spokesperson for Support Dogs over the past two years, willing to share her family’s story to help the charity to grow and be able to help more families like theirs.”
The Young Volunteer award was presented to Erin Smyth who, along with her parents Laura and Alister Smyth, began volunteering as puppy socialisers for Support Dogs, in May 2019.
Support Dogs judges added: “Last year, the family received the lovely little bundle of joy that was Ginny, a sweet little female, black Labrador.
“Alongside all the typical difficult puppy behaviours that come with settling a new puppy into family life, Ginny also fell quite drastically ill within the first month of her stay.
“Eventually, Ginny was diagnosed with Puppy Strangles, a serious condition which is the result of an immune malfunction and meant repeated trips to the vets, strong medication and multiple surgeries.
“Throughout the highs and lows of their journey, Erin - supported by her parents - has been absolutely incredible.
"They have all shown immense love, dedication and determination to ensure that Ginny got the best level of care she possibly could have.
"Erin in particular has spent time reading to Ginny, giving her extra cuddles and being by her side during her times of recovery. Ginny then also repaid the favour when Erin herself fell ill and Ginny was there to offer the same love, affection and cuddles to aid in her recovery.
“Not only has Erin and her family provided such a high level of care but they have also somehow managed to fit in doing an amazing job of socialising and training Ginny to an exceptional calibre.
“Sadly due to her health Ginny has been withdrawn from training, but because of Erin’s hard work she will make the most wonderful companion and pet dog.
“Somehow, in amongst all of this, Erin has also managed to find the time in her busy schedule to come into the centre to help with socialising and training with the other puppies.”
Another awards highlight was when dog-loving Hoylandswaine couple, Maureen and David Lofthouse, were named Puppy Socialisers of the Year, for their work in giving pup Ivor the best start in life.
Maureen and David had sworn never to get another dog after their family pet Buster died aged 16, but after a year without the patter of canine feet, the couple missed having a dog around the house so decided to apply to Support Dogs as puppy socialisers.
Maureen says: “I opened the door to Ivor, and it was love at first sight. We’d had a couple of holidays planned but then lockdown happened and holidays became irrelevant, so we decided to keep Ivor on.”
Ivor proved to be a typical puppy, full of life and fun. He was intelligent too and enjoyed puppy classes run by Support Dogs’ puppy coordinators.
“He worked hard and played hard!” says Maureen.
“He was also an utter tea towel thief - always coming up to me with one hanging out of either side of his mouth."
Maureen and David had to say a fond farewell to their much-loved puppy Ivor after looking after him for more than a year.
It was a happy occasion because the couple knew that their puppy was moving onto the next stage of his life as a life-saving assistance dog, and they had played a big part in his development.
“We brought him to the centre and handed him over and that was that,” says Maureen, aged 62.
“It was very, very hard but psychologically I knew he was not my dog – I told myself that all the time, although I loved him to bits. I knew I was working to an end point and it was important that I knew the date when he would go and that did help.”
Maureen, a retired HR manager, has developed close links with the charity, and now helps out with admin for the Sheffield-based charity’s training team.
Danny Anderson, fundraising manager from Support Dogs said: “We rely so much on the goodwill of our fantastic volunteers to help us train our life-transforming dogs, and although being a puppy socialiser can be extremely rewarding it can also be very demanding!
"We’re very grateful to Maureen and David for their work with Ivor, and for their continuing involvement with our charity.”