Thanks to disability assistance dog Giles, former soldier Natasha has switched to a successful career in the NHS.

At the age of 18 Natasha Lees had a place at Sandhurst and promising career in the army lined up. But an injury to her spine while on military exercise in the Falklands put a stop to that.

For years Natasha struggled to lead a normal, active life but constant back pain, other related physical and mental health problems and regular surgery made working a major challenge.

That was until an English Springer Spaniel called Giles came into her life as her disability assistance dog trained by Support Dogs.

And now Natasha credits the deceptively fluffy but devoted and hard-working pooch with enabling her to once again lead a fulfilling professional life working for the NHS.

Explains Natasha: “I have degenerative disc disease after injuring my back while on military exercise in the Falklands18 years ago, when I was an 18-year-old army reservist. It stopped me becoming a full-time soldier. I had a place at Sandhurst and a career path mapped out but the injury put a stop to that.

“Since then I have been under the care of a spinal consultant, and it’s got worse over the years. I was always very active and I carried on playing rugby and horse riding but by my early 20s the injury got worse and I had to stop. I also have balance problems due to hypermobility in my ankles, which is aggravated by the spinal injury, and have had ligament reconstruction to try and stop me falling over so much!”

Natasha had regular epidurals, disc blocks and spinal operations, including spinal decompression and spinal fusion surgery.

 “My mobility is incredibly variable, I can walk sometimes but not others. On bad days I get by with a walking stick and a huge amount of painkillers but I have been in the position where rely on a mobility scooter or can need a wheelchair post-surgery,” she says.

A few years ago, Natasha, now 37, found her levels of pain were becoming unsustainable. She says: “I was living on my own getting really stressed and not being able to do anything, worried about something happening, and had no day-to-day support around me. So I went out and got a rescue dog, one year old, as a pet.”

Enter Giles, a ‘soft and fluffy, very gentle friendly sausage who loves cuddles,’ The intelligent Springer had already shown great promise training with Natasha in local dog training classes, but then really upped his game and more importantly quickly took to training with Support Dogs’ as a disability assistance dog.

“I was blown away by how the trainers and instructors moved Giles on, and the things they been able to teach him,” says Natalie. “I had only seen basic dog training before, but they have been able to bring something out of Giles to turn him into a really special dog.”

Because of her back, Natasha struggles to bend down and pick things up, so doing that for her is one of Giles’ biggest priorities. He’s also trained to find Natasha’s phone in the house so if anything happens she can call for help. He opens and closes doors, loads and unloads the washing machine, fetches the post – and even tidies up after himself!

“As I live alone, Giles being able to find my phone if anything happens to me is amazing, but Giles also gave me the confidence to start going out and about again as he is trained to fetch help if I fall over when I’m out, so that’s a really important safety aspect,” says Natasha. “As he is an English Springer not a Labrador in a blue jacket he always gets lots of attention outside the house. He loves it!”

But as well as being a model support dog inside and outside the home, Natasha credits Giles most with enabling her to continue to work.

Despite her ill-health she has managed to stay in work since graduating. First in the HM Prison Service in HR project management and commissioning, and currently as a programme management office operations manager with the NHS in Mansfield and Ashfield Clinical Commissioning Group.

“Until lockdown Giles came to work with me every day and everyone in the office loves him,” says Natasha. “He’s the office celebrity who is always up for a belly rub but I had to watch he doesn’t get too many snacks! People would me up for a cuddle with him after a bad day at work. He’s been missing all that since I’ve been working from home.

She adds: “My health has worsened over the last few years to a point where I have needed more and more medical support and I genuinely believe the reason I stayed in work since moving to Nottinghamshire despite all the surgery, mental and physical health issues is Giles. He has kept me on an even keel. He is the reason I get up in the morning, he helps me get through each and every day and he is the reason I am still employed.”

Natasha and Giles relocated from the city to be closer to work and now live in a bungalow in Mansfield Woodhouse, which is more suitable for Natasha’s health needs but also has big back garden backing onto a nature reserve so that Giles can always get the exercise he needs.

“Support Dogs has been a really positive experience – they are so good at supporting us in every way, tailoring the training to what we need, rather than being a one-size-fits-all charity,” she says.

“The idea of going out without Giles is unthinkable; he is indispensable, an extension of me. He is my favourite thing and I love him to bits! Support Dogs have transformed him from a pet into an asset.”