Support Dogs celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017. We look back to the charity’s small beginnings, how it’s changed and grown over the years, and plans for an exciting future.

Back in 1992 when dog behaviourist Val Strong set up Support Dogs, she had just three dogs and was based in a hut in the grounds of a cottage hospital on moors on the outskirts in Sheffield.

Fast forward 25 years and Support Dogs is now a national charity helping people from Portsmouth to Dundee, with more than 20 staff and having successfully trained nearly 250 assistance dog partnerships. Over a quarter of a century, thanks to the very special partnerships between canine and human,  the lives of hundreds of people with epilepsy and autism, as well as those with physical disabilities, have been transformed.

Using an entirely reward-based system, the dogs are trained to carry out a wide range of tasks that make a life safer and easier for their clients. From giving a 100 per cent reliable alert before an epileptic seizure, keeping a child with autism safe and picking up dropped items, to loading and unloading washing machines, opening and closing doors, fetching medication and going for help if required. The wider impact on the mental well-being of the client and the impact that having a support dog has on partners, parents and the wider family shouldn’t be under-estimated either.

In its early days Support Dogs concentrated its efforts in training dogs to help people solely with physical disabilities.

Then in 1993, it trained a dog for a woman with a physical disability, who also had epilepsy. Val suggested that they also train a dog to predict her seizures - and within three months the dog was giving a 30 minute warning of every seizure.

Today these assistance dogs are trained to provide a 100% reliable warning up to 50 minutes prior to the onset of an epileptic seizure – truly life-changing.

In 1997 Support Dogs set up its first national training centre, dedicated to animal behaviourist John Fisher, whose unique approach to dog training formed the foundation of the training methods applied by Support Dogs, and also influenced the development of the seizure alert dog training programme.

In 2008, following on from a successful pilot study, the charity launched a new initiative to improve the quality of life for children with autism with its Autism Assistance Dogs. This programme has been extremely successful in helping children with autism and their families.  Autism assistance dogs not only help with safety but have been shown to reduce children’s stress and reduce the sensory overload that prevent many from easily leaving the house and accessing community and health services. It can form a link between a child with autism and the world around them, enabling them to develop self-esteem, confidence and better communication skills.

Support Dogs doesn’t have its own dog breeding programme, but takes dogs from rescue charities such as Dogs’ Trust, Battersea Dogs’ Home and Blue Cross, also from the Guide Dogs’ breeding programmes, and even council dog pounds. For its disability assistance programme the charity trains a client’s own pet pooches to become their disability assistance dog.

So what makes the ideal support dog? They have to be very sociable, with a sound temperament; not too nervous and not over-confident – an all-round solid, friendly sociable dog. Unsurprisingly, that means largely Labradors and Labrador Retrievers, although some collies, spaniels, terriers and crossbreeds make the grade too.

All Support Dogs’ training courses are accredited by Assistance Dogs UK, an international umbrella organisation.

It takes on average 18 months to complete the training of a support dog partnership. The animals spend several weeks on basic training with their trainers before being assessed for suitability as disability, autism or seizure alert dogs. Further weeks of assessment with an instructor, then more training with instructor and client follow, before the dog is allowed home. Finally, after several more months’ hard work, they will hopefully qualify as support dogs, and the start of a relationship that will last around eight years.  At the ‘graduation ceremony’ held each year, there is rarely a dry eye in the house!

Over the past 25 years the charity has survived some major challenges, not least when its national training centre, opened by its honorary president Angela Rippon in 2005, was devastated by the flood that hit Sheffield two years later. It took a year to recover and rebuild, thanks largely to the generosity of the public in response to the Flood Fund Disaster appeal, and the support of South Yorkshire Police Dog Training Department, who offered the charity the use of their training facilities while the training centre was rebuilt.

In 2012 when Rita Howson, who originally started as volunteer with the charity in the early 1990 took over as chief executive after years as a dog trainer and instructor. Since then she has seen the charity profile and reputation grow. The Earl and Countess of Scarbrough and Elaine Paige OBE, have given their support to the charity as patrons. Yet the demand for its works has also grown. Between 2015 and 2016 the number of daily requests for support doubled to over 3,000 a year. As the charity reaches its 25th year it also celebrates its first expansion to its training centre in over 12 years, as it moves in to additional premises. This recent expansion of its centre in Sheffield will mean more scope for many more dogs and partnerships to be trained each year. Although this of course means its need to raise funds is greater than ever before, with the charity reliant entirely on voluntary donations.

Nearly 25 years on, Rita is aware, not only of the massive difference these dogs can make, but also the growing waiting list of people desperate for the support of an assistance dog.

“Our clients have such difficult lives, take on the big responsibility of having and working with a dog, then go out and stand in the rain to fundraise for us. I’m in awe of them, and what they do to support us,” says Rita. 

“They know, first-hand, the difference that a dog can make, and yet there are so many other people out there who need our help too. So while we celebrate our first fantastic 25 years we won’t rest on our laurels, and our past achievements. Here’s to the next 25 years!”

 May 2017