An insight into a typical training day for one of our support dogs

Running round the park, followed by a quick trip to Meadowhall shopping centre then going home to load the washing machine and tidying up the living room is all in a day’s work for Elsie.

That’s Elsie the black Labrador of course.

It’s just another day of intensive training for the pooch aiming to become a disability assistance dog with Support Dogs.

Elsie, who arrived from another dog charity at the age of two, has already undergone a 12 week basic training programme, and has just graduated to two weeks of more specialised training with her instructor Sarah to prepare her for life as a disability support dog for her new owner Mary.

Mary has a range of physical disabilities and spends much of her time in a wheelchair, so needs plenty of help around the home. She’s come all the way from Glasgow to train with Elsie, and has left her previous, shortly-to-be-retired support dog Pippa at home with husband Andrew.

Like all assistance dogs in training, Elsie arrives at the training centre first thing in the morning, having spent the evening with her foster carers in the city.

On this particular day, Sarah, who has a degree in zoology and a masters in clinical animal behaviour, plus years of dog training experience, decides to kick off  with a walk , or what dog trainers call a ‘free run’ round the park. “It’s important that the dogs have time to be dogs, every day,” she explains.

Work and play

Elsie clearly agrees and has a great time off the lead chasing seagulls and snuffling under hedgerows for food – like most Labradors she’s always hungry.

But soon it’s time for work. Sarah is training her to pick up dropped keys on the off the footpath, then a plastic bottle, then to drop it. The trainers use a reward system, giving the dog treats for completing a task – either dry dog food pellets called kibble, or carrots, which the dogs seem to love. They save particularly high value treats for the completion of a particularly difficult task such as coming back when called. For Elsie that means cheese – several lumps of it after satisfactorily completing everything asked of her.

Then it’s off for a first-ever visit to Meadowhall shopping centre, mercifully quiet on a midweek morning, but nevertheless still potentially something of a shock to the system of a still-learning assistance dog. It’s what the trainers call a ‘restricted space’ where only assistance dogs are allowed to enter. Elsie’s not hugely happy about wearing her smart blue Support Dogs jacket in the shopping centre, but after more cheesy rewards she heads in with Sarah and Mary, looking for all the world that she’s been here dozens of time

She negotiates two lifts in Marks and Spencer, doesn’t react when a small child grabs her by the nose, and generally trots happily alongside Mary in her wheelchair, obeying all commands. Sarah professes herself delighted at her progress.

After a rest and lunch back at the centre, Elsie practises opening and closing doors via a tassel attached to the handle, and finds and fetches a misplaced mobile phone several times. Her success rate is about 75 per cent for these tasks, and Sarah plans to come back to them the following day when the dog is fresher. Then it’s off outside again to practise wearing a harness, and sitting at dropped kerbs. The following day it will be more practice unloading a washing machine, and ‘find daddy’ – the instruction or cue to look for Mary’s husband if she needs help.

Sarah professes herself well satisfied with the day’s achievement. “Training is physically and mentally tiring for our dogs, and more difficult for Elsie because she is adapting to a new person, but I am really, really pleased with Elsie and Mary, “she says. “Mary has a real understanding of dogs and really good skills, and as a pair they are much further ahead in their training than most.”

The future is looking bright, then, for Mary and her new support dog, who will spend the next few months bonding and training together before Elsie officially graduates.

But for now, with the day’s training over, Elsie is heading back to her foster carers, and the prospect of being just a dog again for the evening.