Getting paid to work with puppies? It’s every dog lover’s dream job. But what is it really like to be a Support Dogs’ puppy coordinator? Karlie Wilson spills the beans.

Everyone loves a cute puppy and to most dog lovers, Karlie Wilson has the perfect job.

As one of Support Dogs’ three puppy coordinators, she spends her working life in charge of ten little bundles of canine joy as they journey through puppyhood and gangly adolescence to become life-changing, professional service dogs.

But beyond the cuddles and cuteness, what does being a puppy coordinator actually involve?

What makes the job so enjoyable for Karlie, who joined Support Dogs a year ago, is the variety. 

“Every day is different,” she says. “Essentially, we coordinate every aspect of a puppy’s life - vet appointments, food, training, working with puppy socialisers, sorting out holiday cover, sourcing pups, speaking to breeders, allocating volunteers, running puppy classes, doing the admin - we literally coordinate everything!”

Support dogs of the future usually arrive at the training centre aged eight weeks. After a few inevitable cuddles with staff, they go and live with their puppy socialisers – dog-loving volunteers who live in or near Sheffield - and where the pups will remain for 12-14 months until they are judged to be mature enough to start full-time training, or ‘big school” as it’s colloquially referred to.

That early period of time in a puppy’s life and development is crucial to its success as a grown-up working dog, so for Karlie and her two co-coordinators it’s quite a responsibility. They run puppy classes for pups and their socialisers every week for the first 12 weeks, then monthly workshops, and also one to-one-sessions at the socialiser’s home or out in the community in shopping centres or on public transport, getting them used to the wider world and how to behave in it.

She says it’s important to maintain a professional distance from her canine charges.  Before she joined Support Dogs, Karlie co-ran a dog rescue centre just outside Sheffield for 11 years, and also worked as a veterinary nurse, so has plenty of experience in staying reasonably detached.

“At the rescue I also fostered quite a few dogs, also we only see the pups once a fortnight for their one-to-one training sessions, so we don’t get as attached as the puppy socialisers do, who have them for more than a year. I don’t find it hard – they are always ‘not my dog.’ But we have to be prepared to provide additional support to the puppy socialisers, particularly when they puppy leaves them and moves on, as they have played such an important role.”

So what’s the best thing about being a puppy coordinator?

Karlie says: “Seeing your puppy progress, and also seeing the puppy socialiser progress. Sometimes these are people who have never had a dog before and might be a little bit nervous at first; seeing how they grow and go into training is lovely.”

And the worst?

“If you have to withdraw a puppy. A lot of work has gone into it and sometimes the puppy socialiser feels that they have failed even though it’s due to nothing they have done, it’s because the puppy is not meant for a working role. But they still make fantastic pet dogs or move into another professional job like Cooper who has joined South Yorkshire Police. It seems like failure, but they are just meant for a different role, so we help the puppy socialiser through that. That’s the only negative – and that still has a silver lining!”

Despite her professionalism, if pushed, Karlie admits to having favourites among her puppies.

“There is something about each one of them that makes them special, and that something is very different in each pup,” she says.

“Spot was already here when I joined, and Maisie was the first puppy I had from the start, and they will always be special to me. We have training team meetings so I keep up with their progress when they move on from the puppy programme, but I have limited contact with them - you have to take a step back.”

Karlie and her two colleagues have some say as to which training programme their pups are earmarked for. They hold six and12 month assessments to see if their personalities have the right attribute for the programmes they have been selected for – autism, disability or seizure alert.

She explains: “Dogs are so smart, very intelligent. They each have different personality traits and attributes that would benefit the different programmes we train for. For example, the busier, more active dogs would be good for the disability programme and the laid back, larger dogs for autism.

“Once they are in training it might be that they are suitable for another, different programme; for example, trainee puppy Blade switching from autism to disability.

“As they start full-time training and really come on as service dogs, that coincides with their maturity. They go from fluffy little blobs to gangly adolescents still with puppiness about them and then go into training programme as they mature and emerge as well-trained adults - although some take longer than others to mature.”

So, is this the perfect job for a dog lover? (Karlie has three pet dogs - the fourth died a couple of years ago – an Akita Husky cross, a Lab, and a Lab Retriever cross, all rescue dogs).

“Yes, it’s the perfect job,” she agrees. “Before I came to Support Dogs, I worked for a tour operator and ran the rescue centre in my spare time, but during Covid when I was furloughed and lots of time to think, I decided I really wanted to get back to working with animals again.

“This job has turned out to be even better than I thought it would be. I have learnt so much. There is always something new, everything is always evolving. I’m back in the doggy world for good!”