Support dog Billy is Kim’s third’s four-legged ‘life-changer’, keeping her safe and independent.

When Kim Winter ‘s painful joint condition was at its worst almost 20 years ago she spent 23 hours out of 24 shut away in her bedroom, crippled by anxiety and depression.

Salvation came in the unlikely form of a Staffordshire bull terrier called Poppy, originally a pet, but later trained by Support Dogs to provide Kim with the care and support she needed, and who, in Kim’s words, became a ‘life-changer’.

Wheelchair-user Kim has suffered from a severe form of joint hypermobility syndrome since birth, but in her 20s her condition deteriorated to such an extent that every joint in her body was affected. Her wrists dislocate easily, causing permanent joint damage, and her spine regularly goes into spasm. More recently she has started having frequent fainting fits or blackouts, which are also associated with hypermobility.

Fortunately, Kim now aged 48, still has a disability assistance dog to look after her. Billy, a Golden Labrador Retriever cross, replaced Monica, her second dog, another Labrador.

“Training and socialising Poppy got me out of my bedroom, and once Support Dogs got involved, I was away,” remembers Kim, who lives in a small village outside Cambridge with friend and part-time carer Wendy.

Over the years she has loved all her dogs, and has found it difficult moving from one and onto the next, having to re-build the relationship and the necessary trust that has to exist between dog and owner.

“Getting them to carry out the household tasks such as picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors and so on is the easy bit; it’s the emotional safety part of the relationship that takes a little longer,” she explains.

Current support dog, Billy, is spot on in terms of carrying out tasks, as was Monica, prompting her to admit; ”Let’s just say Labradors and Retrievers are  SO much easier to train than Staffies!”

Billy is still a youngster and has plenty of energy, and to make sure he gets plenty of exercise and ’dog time’, Kim has invested in an off-road, all-terrain electric wheelchair –“it’s worth more than most people’s cars but worth it for the independence it gives me,” she says – so they can go for long yomps in the fields surrounding her home.

Billy is also adept at fetching the phone and a blanket if Kim has a blackout while out of her wheelchair, or in the bathroom, and Kim clearly adores him. And the best thing about having a support dog?  “Safety and independence,” says Kim, without hesitation. “You feel safe in your own house.”

She has two other dogs as pets, a Lhasa Apso and a Chihuahua, who is the size of Billy’s head. Unsurprisingly they attract a certain amount of attention when out walking.

“My dogs have changed my life,” adds Kim. “I am happy at home if I have my dogs around."