Dog-lover Julie Helliwell has never owned a pooch in her life – yet in the past three years she has given 13 puppies the very best start in life.

Julie is a volunteer puppy socialiser for Support Dogs, which trains assistance dogs for children and adults with epilepsy, autism and a range of serious medical conditions, enabling them to lead safer, more independent lives.

To cope with rising demand for its services, which are provided free of charge, the charity has developed a thriving puppy programme. But as pups can’t be trained full time until they are 14 months old, Support Dogs relies on a small army of volunteers like Julie to provide them with a loving homand some basic training before they’re old enough for the next stage of their journey to become a life-changing support dog.

Julie, from Horbury, near Wakefield, decided to become a puppy socialiser when she retired as a medical secretary at Barnsley District General Hospital after 34 years, at the age of 64.

Her first Support Dog puppy was Jai Jayy, a handsome fox-red Labrador, who went on to train successfully and is now an autism assistance dog for a young boy in Sheffield.

She is now looking after a bonny bouncing female Labrador called Corey, just seven months old. And in between Jai Jayy and Corey, she provided short-term holiday cover for another 11 puppies, while their puppy socialisers were taking a well-earned break.

Julie regularly took pup Jai Jayy out and about on the bus and train to Leeds city centre to walk round and get him acclimatised to the wider world. She and husband Paul, who has also recently retired, took on Corey in January, initially as emergency cover but such was the cuteness of the fox-red pup that they decided to keep her until she has to move on to full-time training.

For the Helliwells, being puppy socialisers is great fun. “We have a motor home and we go away a lot, often to Filey,” says Julie. “All the pups have been away with us. It’s very social being puppy socialisers– we have met some lovely people, and made really good friends. People who are doing this tend to be nice people who like dogs so we have got a lot in common.”

But it’s not all fun – it can be tough too.

“It’s hard work looking after a puppy, in a way harder when you are a puppy socialiser because you have to be consistent all the time, make them behave and follow Support Dogs’ rules because they are going to be professional service dogs, not pets, “says Julie. “Right from the start we are training them.”

The one thing most puppy socialisers don’t enjoy is saying goodbye to their puppies at the age of 14 months when they move to the charity’s training centre, also known as ‘big school.’

But Julie takes it all in her stride.  “I am only doing this for the end result.,” she says. “When you have your own dog, when they leave you it’s because they have died. Whereas when these dogs leave you, they are moving on to someone or something better, and to change someone’s life.

Julie says she would highly recommend being a puppy socialiser for Support Dogs, especially to recently retired people who love dogs and don’t want the commitment of owning a dog.

She adds: “It’s so convenient, and all our food and vet’s bills are paid for. And you can literally take the puppies anywhere, it’s not like having a pet dog which doesn’t have access to restricted areas. It’s a nice way to volunteer and we absolutely love doing it.”