How Support Dog Marky has transformed life for Sheffield family

As the old saying goes, a dog is a man's best friend. But in the case of seven-year-old Thomas and Labrador cross Marky, he's much more than that - he's transformed his life.

Thomas with his Support Dog Marky. Picture by Simon Hulme
Thomas with his Support Dog Marky. Picture by Simon Hulme

The autism assistance dog was provided to the family by Sheffield-based charity Support Dogs, which last week welcomed back dogs and puppies to its training centre for the first time in three months.

But the hard work training its current intake of 30 animals did not stop during lockdown, and just as it has for many thousands of children, learning went online - with dogs taking part in Zoom training sessions with the charity’s experienced handlers and trainers from their temporary homes, where they are placed with foster parents.

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For Marky, who has been at home in Wales, South Yorkshire, with Thomas, his brother William, three, and parents Paul and Kim Fletcher, since October - lockdown has meant his final exams and all-important graduation ceremony have had to be postponed. However, that has not diminished the impact he has had on their lives.

Thomas, his father Paul and dog Marky. Picture: Simon Hulme

His mother, Dr Fletcher, a GP, said: “Thomas is the most bright, loving, lovely little boy but he can have challenging behaviour and has no sense of danger at all - so he would run into the road, or run off in a car park.,

“When Thomas was introduced to Marky for the first time there was an instant bond - it was incredible and they’ve been inseparable ever since.”

Thomas was diagnosed with autism when he was three, and the family first realised the impact a dog could have on his life when they visited a family member with a dog and found Thomas became instantly more “calm and collected” in his presence.

They decided to get a pet - but while researching, stumbled across Support Dogs’ autism assistance dogs programme and applied. It took around two years until the perfect match was found and now Marky has been with the family for nine months.

Amy Wood with training dog..Picture by Simon Hulme

Dr Fletcher, 35, said: “Marky is now starting to get a sixth sense as to when Thomas needs him. He has been completely life changing for Thomas and for the whole family. I can’t imagine having gone through lockdown without him.”

When they are out and about, Marky wears a special jacket which is connected to Thomas with a tether around his waist.

Mr Fletcher, 37, said: “Before, in somewhere like a shopping centre, Thomas would have panicked and would have needed to be in his buggy and under a blanket, now he’s chilled and content with Marky at his side.”

Support Dogs fundraising manager Danny Anderson said: “Marky, like our other autism assistance dogs, is invaluable to Thomas.

Support Dogs' trainer Tracey Moore with Arthur. Picture: Simon Hulme

“For children with autism, whose routines have broken down, the world can be a scary place. Assistance dogs can provide stability and security in a chaotic world. We’ve been in regular contact with all of our Support Dogs that are with families across the country - around 100 in total.

“For the dogs who would normally be with us day in, day out, they have been staying with our volunteers full time since we closed. Coming back last week has meant we are able to do face to face assessments and see how they’ve all got on.”

The charity has had a tough time of late - in November the office was flooded, and coronavirus lockdown has meant the majority of fundraising events have been cancelled and income is down by 50 per cent compared to last year.

Mr Anderson added: “We rely entirely on voluntary donations and fundraising events such as cake sales dog shows. It is scary to think what the future holds, but for now, we’re keeping on going and are hoping as lockdown eases, things will get back to normal.”

Amy Wood with Kelly, Danny Anderson (fundraising manger), and Tracey Moore with Arthur. Picture by Simon Hulme

Your support

In 2015, Support Dogs was chosen as the recipient of the Yorkshire Post’s Christmas Appeal.

Inspired by stories of those who had been helped by the charity - such as seven-year-old Cohen Hadfield from Kilnhurst, Rotherham, who had “come to life” since receiving autism assistance dog Azerley, and paralysed Bobbie Hubbard-Marks, 61, from Sheffield, who had re-gained her independence after her dog Poppy was trained as a disability support dog - Yorkshire Post readers raised £10,000 for the charity through direct donations and an online auction.

The fund, which was given a further boost when the Yorkshire Young Achievers Foundation put an extra £5,000, was used to pay for the training of Farley, a black Labrador who was then training to be an autism assistance dog for an 11-year-old boy from Richmondshire.