For the past year Helen Frith and Laura Smyth have willingly given up most of their spare time to  giving two Support Dogs’ puppies, fox-red Labrador Lawson and black Labrador/Retriever cross Ginny,  the very best start in life.

When they are 15 months old, the pups will bid farewell to their devoted carers and start their journey to becoming fully-trained, professional service dogs, transforming the lives of people with epilepsy, autism and epilepsy.

But at the moment they’re still, well puppies.  Messy, cheeky, sometimes destructive but always lovable puppies. So why do it? Especially when just as they start to become well-behaved young dogs, they move on.

Both Helen and Laura had similar reasons for becoming puppy socialisers. They had both recently lost their own pet dogs, and while they didn’t feel ready for the commitment of another pet, they missed having canine company in the house.

“I couldn’t bear a house without a dog,” says Helen, pictured left with Lawson. “My husband was due to take retirement in about a year’s time, and after that we had plans to do things, so being a puppy socialiser for that time fitted in perfectly. I’d get a dog for a year and I’d also be helping someone else to have a trained assistance dog in the longer term - everything just clicked.

“We got Lawson when he was three months old. I thought he was gorgeous and it was so lovely to have a dog in the house again.”

Laura’s own circumstances were also ideal for her to become a puppy socialiser. “I’d been a stay-at-home mum for a few years and my little girl Erin was just starting nursery, so life was opening up a bit, and I was itching to do something,” she says. “I found out about Support Dogs and came along to an information day, and that was that.  We have a great time with Ginny and she has become part of the family.”

While both women absolutely adore their canine charges they admit it can be hard work.  “It’s harder than I thought at first, especially with me having a toddler to look after as well,” says Laura. “We’d never had a puppy before and the first weeks were very tough - puppies can be so demanding and destructive.  Socks are her thing, and we’ve lost so many…”

Helen’s experience has been similar. “It’s a bit like having a toddler. You can never sit down, and you have to have eyes in the back of your head,” she says. “He’s always got something in his mouth!”

But for both Helen and Laura, who both live in Sheffield,  it soon got better and the upsides vastly outweigh the downsides. “I just love having Lawson in the house,” says Helen. ”He has such a lovely personality and is great company to have around.

 “I also really enjoy meeting the other puppy socialisers – I have made some lovely friends and we go for walks together, which has been an added, unexpected bonus.”

Adds Laura: “I really enjoy the training side of things, and the social side of being a puppy socialiser. You can feel a bit isolated at times. And it’s nice to share the ups and downs with the others. It’s different to having a pet dog – you feel more responsible.”

All Support Dogs’ puppy socialisers attend six weeks of weekly classes with their pups, then monthly workshops to learn basic obedience, and by the end of their tenure the pups should be at a level of well-trained pet.

Which brings us to the potentially difficult topic of having to say goodbye to the puppies after 12 months of bonding, love and cuddles. But both women are absolutely clear on the subject – it will be painful but worth it.

“From day one I never thought of Lawson as my dog,” says Helen. “He is on loan. It’s like my children – I wouldn’t expect them to stay at home when they grow up. He will have had a fantastic childhood, and then he will go off and work for a living. That’s been my philosophy from the start.”

Laura, whose daughter Erin is pictured right and below with Ginny,  concurs. “Whenever you welcome an animal into your life, you know that at some point you will have to face the pain of saying goodbye. The difference is, with puppy socialising, you know when that day will be from the start. We accept that that's how it is and just concentrate on enjoying every day that we get to spend with her. I know that Ginny will never forget us, but I also know she will move on quickly and love being with her permanent family just as much.

“We had a few negative comments from family and friends when we got Ginny along the lines of ‘how could you take the puppy away from Erin?’ But it’s been brilliant. We’ve had loads of conversations with her about disabilities and about the fact that someone is going to need Ginny, and that’s more important than us loving her and wanting her; we are doing this for someone else.”

She adds: “When I look at the Support Dogs’ videos on YouTube and how the dogs are helping people, how could we possibly keep her? Also, going to the charity’s doggy graduation ceremony was great. It reminds you why you are doing it. It was a real boost.”

Both feel very proud of their respective pups, and their future careers as professional service dogs.  “I would be disappointed if Lawson didn’t make it as a support dog,” says Helen. “I’ve put so much effort in. Being a puppy socialiser is such a fabulous thing to do. I’m already extremely proud of him.”

Adds Laura: “I would definitely encourage other people to become puppy socialisers. And don’t dismiss it because you think it will be hard. It’s so rewarding.”

  • Do you have what it takes to become a puppy socialiser? Could you play a viral role for our charity by volunteering to be a puppy socialiser and provide full-time care for it from your home for the first 14 months of its life? If you live within an hour of our centre in Sheffield we'd love to hear from you.
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