Support Dogs has transformed hundreds of lives since it launched in the city 25 years ago.
But for the charity, now national, to do its work – creating powerful partnerships between canines and clients – it is not just the dogs that need to learn new tricks.
After months spent sourcing and working with dogs from all walks of life and matching them to a suitable person, trainers from the Brightside Lane centre then spend two weeks working with clients themselves to help them learn all the relevant commands and ensure they are fully integrated with their new best friend.
One person no stranger to this process is Kym Stretton. Kim is the former chair of the charity’s board of trustees and her current dog Marley is her fourth assistance dog to date.
Prior to Marley, Kym’s own pet dogs Zeta and Zoe were trained to assist her. Her third was Baxter, a Support Dog, who retired recently.
Three-year-old red Labrador retriever Marley was being sold on secondhand buy and sell website Preloved, after his owners decided they could no longer look after him. The Sheffield-based charity found his listing and went out to assess him.
Marley had been living in his family’s garden and was rarely exercised.
He arrived at Support Dogs with a nasty ear infection, which was affecting his hearing. He wasn’t used to being walked on a lead, was unfit and grew tired very quickly.
But despite all this, he was extremely happy to be surrounded by people giving him loads of attention and took to the Support Dogs training programme very easily.
Following 18 months of training, Marley was paired with Kym, who lives in Mansfield and has osteomalacia – vitamin D-resistant rickets.
The degenerative bone condition causes her constant pain and greatly affects her mobility, making even the simplest everyday tasks difficult. She also suffers from severe osteoarthritis, a painful joint condition, and has restricted movement in her neck and spine.
Marley helps Kym with everyday tasks such as loading and unloading the washing machine, picking up items she has dropped, dressing and undressing and being there to support her if she falls or gets into trouble.
Kym said: “Having an assistance dog has had such a massive impact on my life.
“Before I had a dog, I hadn’t left the house for over a year. I had no confidence and my family was extremely worried about me.”
Kym found out about Support Dogs after watching a TV show about the charity.
Kym added: “As soon as Support Dogs trained up my own dog, Zeta, to assist me, I had my life and my independence back.
“Now I have Marley, as I’m so grateful to Support Dogs for finding him. He is such a laidback, loving and fun dog to have around. I can’t believe that anyone wouldn’t want him.
“He has come on leaps and bounds with his training and has been given a new purpose in life, which he relishes. I feel very lucky to have him.”
The Star’s Pounds For Pups campaign aims to raise £5,000 to fund one dog’s training.
Through its three training programmes – for disability support dogs, autism dogs and seizure alert dogs – Support Dogs uses a reward-based system to teach dogs to carry out tasks that make life safer and easier for its clients.
Danny Anderson, fundraising manager at Support Dogs, said: “We work with a variety of dogs including those from rescue centres or unwanted pets. We don’t have our own breeding programme and love being able to give an amazing dog a second chance and transform them in to a lifesaver.
“Seeing the journey of a dog, that was unwanted, to being able to make such a positive impact on someone’s life is very special. We are delighted Marley has completed his training successfully and wish him and Kym all the best for a long future together.”
Support Dogs CEO Rita Howson said: “Our trainers are skilled at working on the bond between the dog and the owner.
“Support Dogs is entirely funded through voluntary donations and so we are entirely reliant upon public donations, without which we wouldn’t be able to continue our important work, training and providing specialist assistance dogs which make such a huge difference to people’s lives.”
* Visit Support Dogs Donate page 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.
* Tomorrow: meet Support Dogs CEO Rita Howson
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