A young woman with cerebral palsy has overcome years of severe anxiety and depression to complete her first novel at the age of 21.

Natalie Hibberd credits this huge turnaround to her disability assistance dog Cleo, a Labradoodle trained by national assistance dog charity Support Dogs

“Cleo is the light of my life, my best friend and my most treasured possession; she keeps me safe and I’m no longer afraid to leave the house,” says Natalie. “She opens doors for me – figuratively and metaphorically!”

When Natalie first met Cleo she was at a very low ebb. Aged 18, she had just left college after taking her A levels, and was ill, anxious, depressed and lonely – and unable to write.

Natalie was born with cerebral palsy which affected her lower limbs and meant she could not walk unaided. She also had trouble with her motor skills such as hand-writing, and suffered from pain in her legs and hips.

As well as the physical side of her condition, she also had to cope with the emotional side of being disabled. “I got picked on a lot when I was at primary school by teachers as well as other children” she says. “They would talk over my head and ask if I could talk. When I’d say ‘yes’ it would make them jump!”

Secondary school was easier as although she went to a mainstream school it had a specialist physio unit and disabled children were not treated differently to able-bodied.

But Natalie say that when she went to college that changed and she went downhill drastically. “Disabled students were not encouraged to mix with able-bodied students. It messed with my confidence and my mental health deteriorated.”

While her twin sister went off to university, Natalie stayed at home. She says of that bleak time three years ago:” I could fill a bingo card with everything that was wrong with me!”

Salvation came in the form of a bonny black Labradoodle. Cleo was sourced from the Doodle Trust, a rescue centre for poodle crosses.

“I’d always loved dogs; I’d always been passionate about them, and I’d begged and pleaded for one since the age of three,” says Natalie. “My mum, who is my main carer, decided that now was the right time to get me a dog – a pet dog at that stage.”

Natalie was introduced to a two-year-old Labradoodle. “She was absolutely gorgeous, and I felt at once that she was the dog for me. I’ve never been so excited about anything in my life!”

Natalie and Cleo bonded well, but Natalie had always had the idea in the back of her mind that Cleo could make an excellent support dog as she was already showing the aptitude.

She applied successfully to Support Dogs’ for Cleo to be trained as her disability support dog. “The training was very hard work, but then the way I live everything is hard work, and this was for something that I really wanted,” she says. “I was extremely nervous because I didn’t want to let Cleo down because by this point she was my best friend.

“It was hard when Cleo had to go away to the centre for a month to train and be assessed, and because I hadn’t had her as a puppy I wasn’t sure how she’d react. But it staggered me the way the trainers and instructors trained her so thoroughly, and were also so kind to her.”

The pair qualified as a partnership in August 2019. Cleo’s favourite task is picking up items that Natalie has dropped. She says: “It doesn’t sound much but when you spend your life in a wheelchair you have to spend 10-15 minutes groping around trying to pick things up off the floor.

“She also helps me put on and take off my coat, socks and shoes, presses buttons for me, and opens doors using a pop pom.  And she stays with me at night in case I get into trouble. I’ve fallen a couple of times and she’s off like a rocket to fetch help.”

Natalie started drafting her novel, a teen thriller called Inside Out to be published in November, when she was just 12 years old.  It’s about a society that has been divided into factions – Insiders and Outsiders – the haves and the have nots - and the rule is that they cannot mix.

When asked if her own life experiences have fed into the novel Natalie says: “If there’s one thing that makes me angry it’s people pigeon-holing other people for arbitrary reasons they can’t help.”

Natalie is now writing what she called a ‘pemoir’, a pet memoir about her and Cleo’s heart-warming story. She hopes to raise money in aid of Support Dogs from its publication.

When the duo go out and about, Cleo is always the centre of attention, and Natalie is happy to have attention deflected away from her to her dog. “People now stare at her rather than me, and ask about her, not me. Going anywhere always takes a while as we get stopped so often but I love that as talking about Cleo is my favourite thing!”

For Natalie, the emotional side of her connection with Cleo is as important as the practical side of having a support dog.

 “When you have spent your whole life assessing  the safety of your situation and whether certain people are a threat, now when we go out I know that if someone tried to accost me she wouldn’t stand for it, and would be there to protect me, ”she adds.

As for Support Dogs, Natalie is almost as enthusiastic about the charity as she is about her beloved Cleo.

“There are not enough good words or strong words to say about what I think about Support Dogs,” she says. “I think it’s remarkable what they do. They are extraordinary, and wonderful. They are my second favourite subject of conversation!”