Milli Gunn was shy girl who would find it difficult, in her father’s words, to lift her head up and talk to people – even at home. But that all changed when Emma the Golden Retriever came along.

Eight-year-old Milli lives with dad Steve, mum Christina, sister Ciara and brother Jacob in Upminster – and the addition of Emma to a busy house has truly brought the family even closer.

Milli and Emma have been chosen as the Hero Assistance Dog finalist in the Kennel Club’s Friends for Life competition, with the winner set to be announced on television at Crufts after a public vote.

As Steve explains, Milli, who has Down syndrome, polemic hypertension and anxiety, has certainly come out of her shell since Emma arrived on the scene just over a year ago.

“Emma’s made a massive difference to the family, especially Milli, before we got Emma, Milli was really withdrawn in the home,” said Steve.

“She was really quiet, had her head down and wouldn’t talk to anybody, but Emma’s been a real ice-breaker for her in social situations and everyone can see her personality as well, which is really nice.

“It’s brought us together as a family, because, even rain or shine, we’re out walking her in the woods and having fun.

“During day to day life, the friendship they’ve got is really good. Milli runs straight past me after she’s come in from school, straight to Emma.

“Milli has a swing in her bedroom and Emma just lies down next to her as she swings.

“Emma helps Milli in lots of different ways. Milli has got lots of different issues, and gets out of breath really quickly, and when that happens, Emma comes up and calms her down by resting her head on her lap.

“Milli also has anxiety and she’s given her the confidence to talk to people, even people who she’s never met before, which is amazing.

“She has medication in her drinks and so finding drinks when you’re trying to get five of us out the door can be a nightmare.

“But we just say ‘fetch the drink’ ad Emma goes and does that for us and at the moment, we’re also trying to train Emma to help Millie with her coat.”

The Kennel Club wants to celebrate and share the amazing stories of how dogs give back to us every day of our lives. There will be one winner per category, decided through a public vote and the overall winner will be announced in the NEC arena at Crufts 2019. 

The winner will also be awarded £5,000 and the runners up will each receive – for their nominated canine charity – £1,000 from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust – helping to make a difference for dogs. 

“To win Friends for Life competition would mean so much to us because of what Emma has given to Milli and us as a family, and for what assistance dogs can bring to families in general,” said Steve.

“To be on TV at Crufts would be brilliant, it’s great exposure and great experience. To show what an assistance dog can do, it will be a tough test for Milli but having a friend there, I’m sure she’ll be great with it.”