More than just a best friend: What it's like to be a puppy socialiser
They're canine superheroes providing companionship and independence to those who need it the most.
Specially trained assistance dogs are paired with physically disabled children and adults as well as families with a child with autism by Dogs for Good.
The charity, formally known as Dogs for the Disabled, was founded in 1986 by Frances Hay, who was inspired by the way her own dogs instinctively wanted to help.
Since then hundreds of dogs trained by the organisation have been helping to make people's daily lives, across the country, including many here in the Midlands, easier.
And central to the charity's work are its volunteer puppy socialisers, who love and nurture young dogs in the early stages of their training and ensure they have the best start on their journey.
They are tasked with getting the puppy used to traffic, crossing roads visiting crowded and rural areas plus anything else they may encounter as a working dog.
This includes day-to-day situations such as going to supermarkets, local shops, travelling on buses and trains, and visiting cafes and restaurants.
The charity, which currently has vacancies for puppy socialisers in Brierley Hill, places the dogs with volunteers from the age of eight weeks for about 12 to 16 months depending on how fast the puppy progresses.
Helen Townsend started as a volunteer puppy socialiser with Dogs for Good and socialised six puppies before becoming a full-time puppy socialising coordinator for the charity.
Now she looks after 31 puppies and their socialisers across the West Midlands, Worcestershire and Warwickshire.
“There’s a real sense of pride when you see your dog that you’ve had from eight weeks going out and giving somebody independence. It just makes you really, really proud.
“During the first year of a puppy’s life you have all the fun and get the chance to meet lots of new people and find out what the charity is all about.
“It’s nice to feel you are part of the bigger family at Dogs for Good and to know you are doing something worthwhile. It’s also great to see the end result.”
Puppy socialisers have the option of meeting the next person who will train the dog and the client they are eventually placed with.
Helen’s children were five and seven when she began puppy socialising but she says they always understood they couldn’t keep the puppies forever.
“Socialising puppies has been a good life lesson for my children. They saw they were part of a bigger picture and felt good about doing something to help people who really need an assistance dog," she explains.
“They loved the cute puppy stage but knew they would leave one day to become working dogs.
“We’ve always had other pet dogs so when the puppies left we had other dogs which made it easier for them," adds Helen.
Jean Darlaston, aged 73, who lives near Streetly, has been socialising puppies for 24 years and has just taken in her 20th puppy.
“The house felt empty after my children went to university so when I found out about the puppy socialiser role I thought this is something I could do.
“It gave me a purpose in life, got my brain back into action, and keeps me active.
“I look forward to training a new puppy and building a bond with them. It’s also very sociable, you meet lots of new people,” she says.
“Handing them back is never very nice but in your head it’s never your dog and you’re doing it to help someone else who needs them much more than you do.
“I always had another puppy lined up so I put all my energy into that one - puppies consume your life to start with so that makes it easier.
“I really love doing it. I feel privileged to have these gorgeous puppies and to see them being partnered with people who really benefit from having them.”
Dogs for Good currently has 296 partnerships with adults and children with a range of disabilities and conditions including autism, dementia, learning disabilities and physical disabilities , helping them to lead more independent lives.
The dogs are trained to help with practical tasks that many people with disabilities find difficult or impossible to do, such as opening and closing doors, helping with dressing and undressing, retrieving items such as mobile telephones or dropped articles like keys or a bag, loading and emptying the washing machine and pressing a pedestrian crossing button.
The charity also trains and supports activity and therapy dogs and their specialist handlers to work in the community to help people overcome challenges and achieve goals, using Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI).
While its family dog service offers training and guidance to parents of children with autism, enabling the family to benefit from the unique support a well-trained dog can bring.
The role of a puppy socialiser is particularly suitable for people who have lots of time to spend with the puppy. It's also important that they have a fully-fenced safe and secure garden.
Volunteers should be able to provide the puppy with regular contact with children, other dogs and cats and, with the charity's help, train the puppy in the basics, such as house training, general obedience and walking on the lead.
To find out more about the vacancies in Brierley Hill go to www.dogsforgood.org/get-involved/volunteer/puppy-socialiser