As athletics official Jean Hoyle takes her place at this summer’s Commonwealth Games it will be the high point of her distinguished career.

And by her wheelchair, where he’s been for the past six years offering her a helping paw, will be cocker spaniel Toffee, her disability assistance dog trained by Support Dogs.

The games will be a fitting highlight of achievement for the human/canine duo, as Toffee is due to retire as a professional working dog next year, when he reaches the age of ten.

Jean, aged 68, from Blackpool, has struggled with poor health for years but a combination of her motto: “It’s not can’t, it’s how,” and Toffee’s loyal support, has kept her going through some tough times. “Toffee gives me such love and support and just wants to please everyone,” she says.

Jean has had a severe form of degenerative arthritis for the past 50 years that has had a huge pact on her mobility and affected most of her joints, particularly her spine. As a throwing coach, she has to use her non-throwing arm to demonstrate javelin throwing. “It’s difficult, but you find a way though,” she says.

She has also recently developed coeliac disease and has undergone major surgery twice – but is delaying her third operation until after the Games.

Despite her ill health Jean has been involved with English athletics as an official for Blackburn Harriers since the 1980s. As the only disabled, wheelchair-using official, she travels all over the country in her specially adapted car, with faithful Toffee by her side.

Toffee has been trained by Support Dogs to help her with everyday tasks that Jean finds increasing difficult such as dressing and undressing, picking things she’s dropped from her wheelchair, and opening doors. The bonnie spaniel has become a favourite with athletes.

“Everyone knows Toffee; they love to come up and stroke him and on the rare occasions he’s not with me, people are always asking where he is,” says Jean, a retired accountant.

Toffee is her third assistance dog. Her first and second also helped her pursue her love of track and field athletics, and Jean pays tribute to the support they have given her over the years. “Having an assistance dog has given me such confidence and helped me maintain my independence in so many ways,” she says. 

Toffee will retire as a support dog next year and Jean says she will have to think long and hard about whether to keep him as a pet – in which case he would not be able to accompany her on her athletics’ duties - or whether to let a friend take him on. Jean will start the matching process with her fourth support dog in December.

But first there’s the Commonwealth Games to think about. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in, and I’m mega looking forward to it, I’m really, really excited,” says Jean.

“It’s always been my dream - this is the big one.  It shows what disabled people can do, and what achievable. Plus, it’s a great advert for Support Dogs – to show people how the dogs are used, and what they can do.”