The Roadhouse family are loving life with their gorgeous young Labrador – knowing that they are also helping to give the life-saving trainee assistance dog the very best start.

Gillian, aged 46, and Chris, 47, from Rotherham, are volunteer foster carers for Sheffield-based national charity Support Dogs, which trains dogs for children and adults with autism, epilepsy and serious medical conditions, enabling them to lead safer, more independent lives.

None of its dogs live in kennels while training, but instead stay with local dog-loving families in the evenings and at weekends.

Trainee dog Dug has formed close bonds with Gillian and Chris’s three children, helping the pooch to develop the skills he will need in the future as an autism assistance dog for a little girl in Sheffield.

Gillian and Chris, and children Georgia, Florence and Alfie, have been looking after the yellow Labrador since February when he began his full-time training at ‘big school’ - the charity’s centre in Brightside. Prior to that he was looked after by full-time volunteer puppy socialisers in Sheffield. He is due to leave them in November.

Dug is the fifth support dog the Roadhouses have fostered since they became involved with the charity in 2016.

“Our kids wanted a dog, but we didn’t have the resources or time for our own dog,” explained Chris. “We looked at what Support Dogs does, and we saw it as an opportunity to have a life with a dog on a trial basis. I think the benefit of helping Support Dogs outweighed having a pet dog.”

Adds Gillian: “Chris had never had a dog growing up, but I had, and I knew it was a massive commitment, so we thought: ’Let’s see if we are a doggy family!’”

Six years later they are definitely a doggy family, committed to Support Dogs.

Laidback Dug has formed a particularly close relationship with 12-year-old Florence. Says Gillian: “Florence was struggling in making the transition to comprehensive school and Dug has helped a lot and provided emotional support.”

Dug has also become close to their eldest daughter Georgia, who has Down’s Syndrome. Adds Gillian: “Dug will set his pace to Georgia’s when they are out walking and has learned lots of the softer skills he will need as an autism assistance dog.” And Alfie, who wants to work with animals in future, has really enjoyed helping with Dug’s training. 

One of the potential downsides of being a foster care is having to say goodbye to the dog when it inevitably moves on.  “It IS a bit upsetting, but we very much see the dogs as being on loan,” says Gillian.

“That’s the key point you have to make from the start, especially if you have young children. We always told them: he is not our dog, we are just fostering him, and one day he will go off to be a support dog. Having the client in mind is really important – he is not a pet; he is a working dog. We have always told them that Dug has a really important job, and what an amazing difference he will make to his future family.”

The Roadhouses will definitely take on another foster dog when Dug moves on in November.

“We love being foster carers and would really recommend it to other people who love dogs but can’t commit to doing it full time. It’s a great way of helping other people and you have the benefit of having a lovely dog,” says Chris.

Chris runs Roadhouse Bar and Bottles in Rotherham - where Dug is a popular regular - while Gillian works in a primary school so for them, full-time caring or fostering would be impossible.

“The dogs get picked up in the morning and dropped off in the evening so it’s very convenient for people who work,” adds Chris. “Anyone thinking of trying it could start by providing short term cover or holiday and see if it’s for them. They might get hooked – like we did!”