Favourite Things: Nurturing a supportive and charitable way of life

Rita Howson, of Support Dogs, at Graves Park Animal Farm which is one of her favourite places in Sheffield.
Rita Howson, of Support Dogs, at Graves Park Animal Farm which is one of her favourite places in Sheffield.

Sheffield-born Rita Howson is the chief executive of Support Dogs, a national charity based in Brightside, which trains assistance dogs for children and adults affected by autism, epilepsy and physical disability. She has always worked with animals, taking an animal care course at Shirecliffe College, and joining Support Dogs a year after it was founded in 1992, first as a volunteer, then working her way up from training dogs to running the charity. Rita, aged 49, was born in Gleadless Valley and now lives with her partner in Oughtibridge. She has two grown-up children.


I have lots of great memories of Graves Park from when I was a kid, and I still go there a lot. We used to go cross-country running around the park when I was at Gleadless Valley Comprehensive in the depths of winter, in just shorts and T-shirts. And it’s where my love of animals came from. I spent a summer working at the rare breeds centre when I was 16, after I’d done a placement there during college, and loved it.


I’m really interested in local history, although I’m no expert, and if I go somewhere new I always try and find out the history of the place and what’s gone before. I loved going to Bishops House when I was a teenager. And I used to be fascinated by Lees Hall, an old manor house in Norton Lees, which is now demolished. When I was at school it was very much run down and boarded up, and there were lots of stories about it being a haunted house.


Support Dogs was first set up in the bowling pavilion behind Lodge Moor Hospital in just one small room, and had just three dogs. I started as a volunteer and it was an exciting time because it was all new. It was a beautiful spot, and I have some good memories of the summer days sitting on the bowling green having lunch with clients and their dogs.


I do a lot of walking with my dog Nell, although she’s getting older now so can’t go as far as she used to. I really enjoy going round the reservoirs, such as Ladybower, Damflask, Agden, Underbank, Broomhead and Moorhall. I love the Lake District, but closer to home around Sheffield we’ve got so many reservoirs with fantastic views and walks around them; it makes you realise how lucky we are to have them on our doorstep. The countryside around here is absolutely amazing. Another favourite local walk is Beeley Woods, gorgeous at this time of year with bluebells, and one of 35 ancient woodlands within the city boundary.



Fox Valley is just a short drive away from where I live and as well as the usual Aldi and Home Bargains has some nice, little unique shops. Upstairs there’s an interesting time line so you can read about its history and about the factory workers who used to work in the site when it was Samuel Fox Steel Works. There’s a connection too as my dad was a steel worker; he was a crane driver at Firth Brown. Funnily enough that was on the site where Support Dogs is based now, Jessops Riverside, just opposite Forgemasters.


I visit Bradfield a lot as it’s another lovely spot right on my doorstep. You’ve got the Old Horns in High Bradfield and the Plough in Low Bradfield and they both serve amazing food and are very dog-friendly. It’s very valuable for us when training our dogs that we can take them to pubs and other busy environments to get them used to real-life situations. Being based so close to Meadowhall is incredibly useful and our dog trainers spend a lot of time with dogs and clients getting them used to crowds and noise.


Another local park for me, and where we’ve held our fun dog show and demonstrations as part of Sheffield Wednesday’s Owls in the Park for the past few years; we provide the canine element of the day. We’re looking forward to this year’s event, as it’s a fantastic opportunity to spread the word about what we do, and to show how extraordinary our dogs are in transforming people’s lives.