Support Dogs: the life of a puppy socialiser

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Support Dogs: Fiona and Otis

Fiona Foster, from Mosborough, Sheffield, is a puppy socialiser for national charity Support Dogs – which trains and provides dogs to help autistic children and adults with epilepsy or a physical disability to live safer, more independent lives.

A family says a new puppy has brought “lots of laughter” to their household – but in looking after the pooch, they are potentially saving a life. Fiona, 42, her husband Paul, 41, and children Isabella, 11, and eight-year-old Oliver are currently looking after five-month-old Red Fox Labrador, Otis.

After a period of training, the pooch will eventually be matched with a client on either Support Dogs’ epilepsy seizure alert, autism assistance or disability assistance programme.

Puppy socialisers look after young Support Dog trainees in their first year and can provide some basic training. They attend puppy class at Support Dogs’ training centre in Brightside, Sheffield, once a week for 12 weeks and are visited by a puppy co-ordinator from the charity on alternate weeks.

Fiona, a software engineer, said the family had wanted a companion for their dog Merlin, a cross-breed rescue dog from Cyprus, but they didn’t want to commit long-term or have the associated expense that comes with having a dog. They also didn’t want to have to find accommodation for another pet when they went on holiday.

“Everybody says ‘I couldn’t give the puppy up’, but when you see how much good they do, you know they are never really your dog.”

But Support Dogs provides food, medical expenses and insurance for trainee dogs and also has other puppy socialisers and volunteer foster carers to provide holiday cover for the dogs.

Recalling the moment they first met Otis, at Support Dogs’ training centre, Fiona said, “It was difficult not to fall in love with him. You are allocated your own support trainer to help you through those first days and weeks and of course throughout the puppy’s time with you.”

She added, “Otis has added a lot of fun and a lot of laughter to our family. It also means we get exercise by getting out and about with him – because we both work from home, other than the school run we didn’t tend to go out for a walk.

“It’s quite fun to be involved with Support Dogs and having a Support Dog with you – when you take them out, people stop you and ask you questions and you get a chance to explain about the charity.”

Fiona said before signing up to be a puppy socialiser, she didn’t realise just how much support was available from the charity’s co-ordinators and trainers.

She added, “Everybody says ‘I couldn’t give the puppy up’, but when you see how much good they do, you know they are never really your dog. You love them like they are, but the first thing I say to people on the street is ‘he’s not mine, he’s in training’.

“The kids know we love him and we wanted him, but there’s a family out there that really needs this dog and we are lucky that we don’t need his help.”

Daughter Isabella added, “I feel really proud to know he’s got an important job.”

Fiona’s advice to anyone thinking about becoming a puppy socialiser is “definitely do it – it’s a lovely thing to be part of”.

She said,  “If you think you want a dog, but don’t think you have the skills to have a dog, then you have that back-up. If you financially aren’t able to stretch to having a dog, you can do that. If you work during the day but your kids are desperate to have a dog, you can provide holiday cover.”

Criteria to become a puppy socialiser includes living within 45 minutes’ drive of Support Dogs’ Sheffield base, having a secure garden, and being home for the majority of the day.

This is a guest post by Support Dogs. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

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