Monday, April 4, 2011

D is for Dog (guide dogs)

Yep, you guessed it. As a puppy walker for Guide Dogs (UK) my D-day has to be about dogs and guide dogs in particular.

If you love dogs and you have plenty of time, being a puppy walker is a fantastic way of combining your love for dogs with a really useful volunteer role. And you don't need any experience, they'll train you as you go. It's fun, it's fulfilling, it's fabulously rewarding.

Guide Dogs in the UK breed all their own dogs, usually about 1500 new pups a year. But they can't really do anything with these pups until they've reached maturity. You wouldn't load a child up with adult responsibilities, and nor can you a dog. So what do they do with them all? Well, it's been shown that pups reared in family homes do better as working guide dogs and so the pups are fostered with families until they are about 12 to 14 months old.

Pups will be delivered to their new homes at around 6 to 7 weeks old, having already had their first round of jabs. We're encouraged to take them out in public places right from the start... carrying them because they're not yet fully vaccinated. This early socializing is vital and creates confidence and healthy curiosity in the pups. They get used to the sounds and sights of town centres from the security of your arms.

Under the supervision of a professional trainer, puppy walkers are encouraged to do basic obedience and house training with the pups. Your supervisor will always be on hand to give advice with training and health issues. And there will be issues, believe me. These pups don't come with especially high IQs or strong bladders.... they're just pups. It's your job as a puppy walker to prepare them for their future role in life. But first you'll have to deal with the upset tummy, the chewed furniture, the holes in the lawn, the tug-of-war with the washing on the line, the torn wallpaper, the ruined pot plants... the list goes on.

Once you start doing lead-work you'll take the pups on buses and trains, following procedures explained to you by your supervisor. You'll visit shops and theatres, churches and hospitals, schools and hairdressers. You'll give the pup experience in different kinds of lifts (elevators) and in and out of different kinds of vehicles. But of course, before you can do this you have to be able to trust that they're not going to relieve themselves in unacceptable places.

Poo-ing and pee-ing: this is the most difficult issue for puppy walkers and also for blind people when they get a new dog. Our pups are encouraged to toilet on command, but this takes a lot of training. When I say 'on command' that's not a trick they turn on for visitors. You have to be sensitive to their eating routines and the time that's elapsed since their last meal etc. Puppy walkers become poo and pee watchers because you can't go out with the pup until you've seen a poo and a pee. And then you know you've got a couple of hours of safety, if you're lucky. Clean walks are what we aim for.

In all our work with the dogs, we have to keep in mind that one day this dog will help a blind person... so we are constantly asking ourselves 'how will this behaviour affect a guide dog owner?'  For example, an orderly and controlled entrance and exit through a doorway is essential; steady and controlled pace going up and down stairs; quiet and controlled behaviour in cafes and restaurants. This is all the work of the puppy walker. No, we don't teach the pup to 'shake a paw'... why? Because this may knock a mug of steaming coffee out of a blind person's hands. No, we don't give any human food. Why? Because we want the dogs to ignore all scents of human food. A guide dog owner must be able to trust that the dog is not eating the bread rolls on the low shelf in the supermarket or the meat pie left on the adjacent table in the restaurant. Pups are encouraged to show no interest in what's up at table or kitchen workbench level. It's sometimes difficult to achieve this, but it's really important.

'Does my bum look big in this?'  

Just when you get to the stage where you are proud to take him/her anywhere it's time for them to go into the Guide Dogs Centre for the really serious training to begin. 'Big School' we call it. And yes, your heart breaks to say goodbye. There's no getting away from that. It does hurt.

Usually you are invited to observe your pup working with a professional trainer near the end of training, when they're around 18 months to 2 years old, and then you see what it's all been about. Your lanky, uncoordinated, gazing-off-into-space-and-not-listening-to-you pup has miraculously become this calm, focussed, confident creature leading his blindfolded trainer around a busy town centre. Your work was not in vain.

There are over a million people in Britain registered as blind or partially sighted but Guide Dogs only have around 5000 working dogs. This is all the organization can manage to produce and maintain with the funds available. (Guide Dogs receive no Govt funding and no Lottery funds.) It costs approximately £43,000 to maintain a guide dog throughout its working life. The dog works until it is about 8 or 9 years of age and it's then retired and adopted by a well vetted new owner or kept as a family pet by the family it has served. Another guide dog will move in to take over the work. Once Guide Dogs enter into a contract with a blind person, this is a lifetime commitment and there is no charge beyond a nominal 50p.

Guide Dogs are not a magic cure for blindness... they don't replace fully functioning eyes... the people who choose to have one need to train with that dog in order to be able to get the best from it. The dog doesn't 'know' where the blind person wants to go... it's a partnership. They have to train to work together. But once a successful partnership is in place the result is 'independence'. Being able to walk down the busy cluttered High Street feeling confident that you are not going to step out in front of a car or bump into someone's advertizing hoarding or baby buggy. Knowing that if you have an evening at the pub your dog will get you home. Enabling you to find your way around a busy university campus and arrive at the correct lecture hall on time. Ensuring that you walk your children safely to school, along with all the other mothers.  A guide dog would not suit everyone... but when it works well, it's life-changing. And you can have a part in this. Become a puppy walker.

Further information:    UK  www.guidedogs.org.uk   (established 80 years)
                                      NZ  www.rnzfb.org.nz
                                      Elsewhere - Google: guide dogs


  1. I enjoyed the read and the pics of the pups. x

  2. This is a wonderful post. I love the detail you put into it - explaining something so well. Thanks. I have a dear dog - Hoagy - who will be ten next month. We're planning to get an overlapping pup but aren't in a position to get a guide dog (we don't live in the city so hard to socialize out here) but I like the idea very much. Must be hard to give them up but then you always will have that bundle of velvet love that a puppy is...so.
    Jan Morrison

  3. I really enjoyed this post. You write about this topic very well. There are many cherished moments in life, why not wear a beautiful dress! When looking back on special memories of your child wearing a gorgeous dress, it will make a fond memory.

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