For Rita Howson, going to work every day is an absolute dream.
AS CEO of Sheffield-based charity, Support Dogs, she is passionate about the service they provide and has seen firsthand the massive difference that assistance dogs like theirs make to real people’s lives.
But head of the company is a long way from where Rita started, when she joined Support Dogs 24 years ago as a volunteer, doubling the workforce.
Based in a hut in the grounds of a Lodge Moor Hospital, on the outskirts of Sheffield, Rita and founder Val Strong, a leading dog behaviourist, were training just three dogs for the benefit of people with physical disabilities.
In those early days Rita says she could never have predicted the future success of the charity - she just wanted to work with animals!
“From a very young age I was taking the neighbours’ dogs for walks as I wasn’t allowed one of my own,” laughs Rita.
“When I was 12 I started working with the RSPCA every holiday and weekend.”
There followed an animal care course at college, stints working at a vet’s, in dog kennels, and at Graves Park Animal Farm in Sheffield. It was years later, when Rita’s youngest child was a toddler, that she spotted an ad in the local paper.
Rita adds: “It was an ad for someone to work with assistance dogs, and although I had no idea what that meant, it had the word ‘dog’ in the title so that was good enough for me!”
In those early days Support Dogs concentrated its efforts on training dogs to help people with physical disabilities. More volunteer dog trainers came on board, a Board of Trustees was set up, and in 1994 the charity’s focus expanded to include training seizure alert dogs for people with epilepsy, and in 2008, assistance dogs to help children with autism.
Rita finally started getting a salary and became head trainer. When Val left the charity in 2005, Rita remained the dog training manager for many years and, with a small but devoted team, built the charity up to what it is today.
Four years ago Rita became Support Dogs’ chief executive, and decided it was time to strengthen the charity’s profile - both within South Yorkshire, and nationally.
“We’d got to the stage where we had this fantastic service, many people in desperate need of our help but not enough money to carry out our work, and I wanted more people to know what a wonderful job we did.”
Since then the charity has been working hard to steadily build awareness of its work, with both individuals and businesses. The charity relies entirely on voluntary donations and so every penny raised from individuals, businesses, groups and organisations makes a vital impact to its work. Impressively, the Earl and Countess of Scarbrough and Elaine Paige OBE, have given their support to the charity as patrons. Yet while the charity’s income and its capacity to train more partnerships steadily rises, so the does the demand for its services. The charity now has just over 20 members of staff and works with over 100 dogs a year - but received over 3,500 requests for their services in 2016 from individual and families in need - double the requests received the year before.
“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. I’m in awe of them, and what they do to support us,” says Rita.
“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.”
Nearly 25 years on, Rita is as hands on as ever, and still manages to fit in time to train the dog trainers, as well as all her other responsibilities. She also reveals that her passion for the charity’s work has never waned.
“I’m very proud of the charity, the people who work here and of course, our clients, who really inspire me, and who have kept us going for all these years,” she says.
And of course, working at Support Dogs has its own rewards for someone who remains devoted to animals. Her current dog, Nell, was assessed to be a support dog but didn’t qualify. Happily Rita had already fallen for her and was more than happy to offer her a home as a much-loved pet. Fourteen years on, Nell is to be found, every day, in Rita’s office, quietly sitting under her desk, and is very much the favourite with the charity’s admin staff.
“I can’t imagine working anywhere but Support Dogs – being able to spend time with so many dogs over the years, and knowing that our work makes such a huge difference to so many people is such a brilliant combination,” adds Rita.
“It really is my dream job.”
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