WHEN a young Basingstoke woman began volunteering as a guide dog trainer, she had no idea that the dogs would help her as much as she helped them.

Rachel Patterson was struggling with depression and had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome when she first began voluntary work as a puppy walker for Guide Dogs.

She found it difficult to leave the house and was anxious about having conversations with strangers.

Now, four years on, she finds it much easier to cope with the stresses of living with the syndrome, and has recently been honoured for her outstanding work with the charity at a star-studded awards ceremony.

Rachel, 24, is currently training her fifth puppy Yuri, a Labrador/ golden retriever cross, and has seen previous pups go on to become a vital support for their blind owners.

Rachel, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the summer of 2012, said: “It’s something I absolutely love doing.

“With a dog beside me, I have a reason to go into town and they’re there as a comfort if it’s busy or stressful.

“I always found it hard to talk to people, but since I started volunteering people are always asking about the dogs and I find it much easier to have conversations with strangers.

“I will always struggle with certain things but it has helped me so much – more than I ever thought possible.It’s also great to know that the dogs go on to be so important to their owners and that I have played a part in that.”

As part of her role as a puppy walker, Rachel teaches the dogs basic commands, gets them used to walking in front of their owners and helps them overcome any particular issues, such as going up stairs or into lifts.

In December, Rachel won the Volunteer of the Year – Young People’s Award at the Guide Dogs Annual Awards 2013.

She was one of around 400 guests, including 30 guide dogs and a smattering of celebrities, who attended the ceremony at the London Hilton.

She was presented with her award in front of an audience including Adrian Chiles, Martin Clunes, Chris Robshaw, Joanna Page, Jade Ewan, Martin Lewis and David Blunkett MP.

Rachel said: “I couldn’t believe it when I won – it was a huge shock.”