One young woman's story of how outward appearances can be deceptive - and how support dog Paddy helps her to live a more normal life.

Support Dogs’ clients have a wide range of physical disabilities that may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer.

Young mum Casey Catlin, who has lived with severe arthritis since she was a toddler, knows better than most how outward appearances bear little reality to the levels of pain and disability she has to live with just about every day.

Casey, husband Dan, baby Aoife and support dog Paddy, (pictured left) who live in Chatham, Kent, are a seemingly healthy young family unit.

Yet Casey, now 26, was diagnosed with a form of inflammatory arthritis – a crippling auto-immune condition that affects the joints and internal organs – at the age of just 18 months. She spent many years as a small child in a wheelchair and was unable to walk until the age of eight.  Thanks to the effects of powerful immune-suppressant drugs which kept her condition under control, she was able to attend normal schools, but over the years her arthritis has regularly flared up, making normal life difficult.

Casey has had Golden Retriever Paddy since he was a puppy and the pair have been a successful Support Dogs partnership for the past four years.

Puppy Paddy came into Casey’s life when she was having a particularly bad time, six years ago. “I was going through a very low patch in life, all my drugs were changing, my condition was flaring up and it was something to brighten my day,” she says. “I loved training him and he was very intelligent. When I was with him I would get up and out for a walk even on bad days – he was my motivation.”

Casey’s mum  suggested that Paddy would make a great assistance dog, but despite being accepted onto the Support Dogs training programme he nearly failed his training  – being used to a quiet part of Kent , the noise and bustle of Sheffield, where Support Dogs is based, made him nervous.  But with Casey and trainer Tracey’s hard work and encouragement, Paddy became accustomed to buses, trams and traffic, and went on to qualify with flying colours.

With Paddy’s assistance Casey managed to get through 18 months of a degree course in an animal management at the University of Greenwich. Ill health forced her to give up, but she still plans to pursue her dream of working with animals – entirely because of her positive experience of Support Dogs.

“Because I was diagnosed so young I have never known anything else,"Casey explains. “The thing I struggle the most with is trying to explain to people how I feel when I don’t know how I feel myself. Some days I’m perfectly fine but extremely tired. The hardest thing for me is the unpredictability of the condition. I have a wheelchair, a stick and crutches but I’m 26 and trying to be a physically independent as I can without asking for help.”

When Casey gave birth to baby Aiofe last spring, Paddy, as well as Casey, had to make a lot of adaptations to their new life as he was used to being her constant canine presence.

"For five years Paddy has been my world, a great companion," she says.

 “Now he has to learn to take a bit of a step back. Paddy and Aoife are still getting used to each other.  Paddy would always make me feel better and when Aoife came along I genuinely believed he would be her best friend too.  But bit by bit they are getting closer – we’re getting licks on the head, and they now happily lie next to each other.”

“Over the years what I have needed him to do for has completely changed,” she adds. “He’s been with me when I lived on alone in a flat, and has had to adapt to my life changing to include Dan and now Aoife. But he does it brilliantly."

"I’m massively grateful to Support Dogs for turning him into such a perfect dog.”

Casey is one of Support Dogs’ youngest clients, and she is often mistaken for his trainer when the pair go out together. Because of her relative youth and the fact that arthritis is not always visible and often associated with older people, she has encountered some people who don’t believe there is anything wrong with her.

She recalls: “One time I was having a really bad day and we parked in the disability bay at Tesco’s. We were just putting on Paddy’s jacket when a man in the next bay rather nastily asked me if I was using my nan’s blue badge?

“Disabilities are not always visible and there is not always an age limit. It’s the same with arthritis or epilepsy –they think if you can walk you’re OK. Some people just don’t understand, and I get very frustrated. They don’t realise what it took for me to get out of the house that day, and that I’d had to take four lots of painkillers!

“One of the fantastic benefits of having a support dog is that they make people realise that they maybe need to re-think how they visualise disability.”