Raife the fox-red Labrador is set to transform the life of a child with autism – largely thanks to the efforts of a dog-loving  couple who gave him the very best start in life.

Sarah and Steve Popple, from Clayton West, near Wakefield, have been puppy socialisers for  Support Dogs for the past two years, and as well as looking after Raife (pictured below) throughout lockdown, they are now caring for a second puppy, Bruce, another canine with a great future as a life-changing assistance dog.

And to thank them for their hard work and dedication the charity has given Sarah and Steve its puppy socialiser of the year award.

Support Dogs is a national charity based in Sheffield that trains assistance dogs for children and adults with autism, epilepsy and a range of medical conditions including MS and cerebral palsy, enabling them to lead safer, more independent lives.

Before its dogs start full-time training at the age of 15 months, they live in the homes of a number of volunteer puppy socialisers.

Sarah and Steve are both retired health professionals with experience of working with people with autism who decided to become puppy socialisers for Support Dogs after they lost their own dog.

“It was tough looking after a pup during lock down, although we were able to attend a few puppy classes via Zoom,” says Sarah. “Raife was doing well until lockdown hit, and we had to practically start again with him to build up his confidence.”

Sarah and Steve, who also attend numerous Support Dogs talks and events with a puppy, are now looking after Bruce, a young black Labrador. “He is an absolute star – hard work at the beginning, but now a real joy,” says Sarah, pictured above with Steve and Bruce. “We put a lot of hard work into him and we’re now reaping the benefits. It will be a sad day when he leaves us in January to start his training as a future support dog. To see the difference these dogs make is just fantastic.”

Chief executive of Support Dogs Rita Howson said: “We rely very much on our of volunteers and people like Sarah and Steve are our absolute life blood. We couldn’t do what we do in training our amazing dogs to transform lives without people like them. They fully deserve to win our puppy socialisers of the year award.”