A WOODSTOCK woman is proving that dogs are much more than just man’s best friend.

Alex Cowtan says her perfect pooch Archie is not just her friend – he helped ‘save her life’ after an overdose.

Miss Cowtan, 21, has a history of mental health problems after being diagnosed with social anxiety and depression at just 14.

She recalls being in and out of A&E regularly last year as things came to a head and by July admits she was ‘struggling to find a reason to carry on’.

But the self-confessed dog lover, from Bladon near Woodstock, saw a lurcher puppy for sale on Facebook after coming out of hospital and described it as ‘love at first sight’.

She said: “I just remember feeling pure joy: I knew from the start he was a very special dog.”

“I got Archie as a puppy as emotional support – he wasn’t going to be an assistance dog just a pet, but he helped a lot with things like going out in public and I soon learned you can train a dog to help people with mental health issues too.

“He not only changed my life, he saved my life.”

Archie is now one year old and has helped turn Miss Cowtan’s life around completely.

She said she has not been ‘anywhere near to being back in hospital’.

The pup has even helped in building up Miss Cowtan’s confidence to go out in public, enough to secure and hold down a new job at Costa Coffee in Kidlington.

She said: “I felt less alone: there was always someone happy to see me with Archie and he just had a really good impact on me mentally.

“Now, having someone who relies on me, I couldn’t go back to before.”

Miss Cowtan is now training Archie to help her with daily tasks and dealing with difficult crowds in public places, and wants to raise awareness that anyone with mental health problems can train a dog to do the same for them.

The tasks Archie is learning include getting Miss Cowtan out of bed, 'crowd control', alerting and assisting with panic attacks, performing deep pressure therapy and fetching things such as medication.

Miss Cowtan said she hoped to raise more awareness as there are currently no national charities training psychiatric assistance dogs.

She added: “Pretty much any dog could be trained as a mental health assistance dog as long as they have a good temperament, calm in public places and they’re willing to learn.

“Archie is just starting to learn and it is important not to rush things when they are younger.

“Archie is good but can be so cheeky as well, even naughty when he wants to be but as soon as his harness is on he’s perfect.”

Accredited assistance dogs are trained by a number of charities in the UK to help people with physical disabilities including hearing difficulties, epilepsy, mobility problems and more.

The Equality Act 2010 says accredited assistance dogs and owners cannot be refused entry to places such as shops, hotels, restaurants and taxis, but the law does not currently cover dogs which are trained solely to help people with mental health problems.

Miss Cowtan is also raising awareness of how to act around these dogs and urged people to always ask the owner to pet a dog, especially if wearing a jacket or harness.