A trained assistance dog who helped her owner battle crippling anxiety that left her trapped at home has been named Vets Now Pet of the Year 2023.

Two-year-old Belle has transformed the life of Amee Tomkins, from Milton Keynes, who spent seven years rarely going out due to the fear of panic attacks.

She is now able to do normal activities that seemed impossible and has even gained the confidence to become a mum. Belle was the first dog allowed in the hospital labour ward at Milton Keynes University Hospital when Amee and partner Paul welcomed baby Olly in May.

The super-smart Staffordshire Bull Terrier even steps in when Amee’s OCD makes shopping difficult by tapping her bank card on the machine to pay.

And she also brings happiness to kids with regular school visits as a therapy dog.

Amee, 33, has autism and a long history of anxiety.

“I wouldn’t leave the house for months, even to go to the shops or doctors’ appointments,” said Amee. “I’d try to go but when I reached the door, I just couldn’t do it.

“I’m anxious about everything and with my OCD I struggle with germs, meeting people and new situations.”

Amee got Belle as a puppy and found she was able to increasingly go out with her for walks. After she saw potential, Amee worked with an animal behaviourist and spent months teaching Belle until she became an owner-trained assistance dog.

With Belle by her side, Amee was able to go to the cinema, theatre and restaurants for the first time in years, as well as go shopping.

“If she senses me getting anxious, she’ll jump up and put her head on me to rub, which is really calming,” said Amee. “She grounds me so I can take a breath and carry on. And if I do have a panic attack, I know she’ll find the nearest exit and get me out of the shop.

“She takes my card to pay at the till and hands over cash I give her if needed.”

Amee had been going through fertility treatment but says she wouldn’t have had the confidence to become a mum if it hadn’t been for Belle.

As well as attending ante natal appointments, Belle was a huge source of comfort when Amee was hospitalised for two weeks after contracting severe septic pancreatitis a couple of months before the birth.

“She was with me in the ambulance and at my side whenever she could while I was intensive care,” said Amee. “When I was ill on my own at one stage, she jumped at the door to alert the nurses that I needed help.

“I had to have a Caesarean section and as well as being the first dog authorised to be on the labour ward, she stayed by my side afterwards and is just brilliant with Olly.”Amee, Belle and Olly

Belle is also a therapy dog with charity Canine Concern and is part of a weekly Bark to Read programme at a local primary school as well as attending a children’s library during the holidays.

“She’s opened up the whole world for me, let me become a mum and I owe her so much,” said Amee. “I could never have done any of the things I have without Belle and I’m so pleased and proud that she has won the Pet of the Year award.

“I’ve had such a tough time in the past year, and she has been an absolute star.”

This is the second annual Vets Now Pet of the Year awards and there were deserving entries from across the country.

“The whole team were incredibly moved by the huge impact Belle has had on her owner Amee,” said Dave Leicester, an emergency vet and head of telehealth at Video Vets Now.

“Belle is an outstanding example of the special bond owners can have with their pets, which goes far beyond companionship.

“Not only has Belle helped Amee overcome so much personally, but she continues to help others in the community, both as a therapy dog for the Canine Concern charity and as part of the Bark to Read programme in local primary schools.”

“We hope that Belle’s story can also help to shine a positive light on the Staffordshire Bull Terrier breed and showcase how, with the right training, care and attention, they can be a wonderful family pet.”

Amee received a trophy, a £500 voucher and a personalised bundle of vet-recommended pet treats from official awards partner Wayfair.

Marina Kull, Head of UK Housewares at Wayfair said “Belle is a hugely worthy winner of Vets Now’s ‘Pet of the Year Award’ 2023. Offering owner Amee comfort, support and confidence, her story is truly remarkable. Pets are such an important part of homes for thousands of households across the country and it’s clear that Belle is very much part of the family. We hope Amee can use her prize to treat Belle to something lovely from the Wayfair pet department – she certainly deserves it!”