Anne Royle has long had a doggy-shaped shadow following her every move. At home, around town, even when she’s in the bath, her German Shepherd, Kayra, is by her side, looking on with doting eagerness to help.
Kayra is a qualified Pathfinder Dog, specially trained to be an assistance dog for blind people and now the canine companion to Anne, who is completely blind herself.
Blind since birth – although she temporarily regained some sight when she was younger – Anne knows all too well the independence, freedom and love a dog can bring to the often-isolating world without sight. Which is why she decided in 2003 to set up Pathfinder Dogs, an independent charity helping blind people find their ‘four-legged spectacles’, as she jokingly calls them, with the help of specially trained German Shepherd dogs like Kayra.
“German Shepherds were the original guiders for blind people back when the entire world guide dog movement started in the Thirties,” says Anne. “Which is why we decided to focus entirely on that breed. German Shepherds make great dogs for blind people because they’re one-person dogs – once you’ve won them over, they’ll do anything for you.
"And they’re very versatile, so can cope with lots of different situations. And unlike Labradors, who have a natural wobble when they walk, German Shepherds have a steady gait, which means when the harness wobbles in your hand, as a blind person you know this is because the dog is on an uneven surface and you need to take more care.”
Since the tiny Pathfinder Dogs charity began, Anne and a group of dedicated volunteers have helped fund and train 13 German Shepherd dogs, each of which have been matched with a blind handler, who’s either contacted Pathfinder direct, or been referred by social services.
One of the people playing a vital role in making this happen is Puppy Raiser, Debbie Hill who takes the dogs from ten to 12-week-old puppies and trains them in all they’ll need to know as a Pathfinder Dog. She’s currently busy training the latest recruit, Karma, who at ten months is still in the junior school days of her training – although he’s getting A*s for effort.
“From the day they arrive, we start training with a positive clicker approach where they get treats for achieving certain things,” she says, revealing a pocketful of roast beef treats.
“For example, we’ll go to a coffee shop where I’ll train them how to find the door, find a seat, then put their nose to the chair so the blind person knows where to sit. They also learn things like how to stop at a kerb and how to put their nose on the traffic light button. But it’s not all hard work – we do give them time to play and just be a dog.”
As she chats I notice a rather sheepish-looking Karma shaking off some of the muddy evidence of her high-adrenaline paddle in the local dykes that morning.
After 18-24 months training with Debbie, Pathfinder Dogs have a few months’ advance training before being matched with a blind owner. Dogs are matched based on personality, how big a workload they enjoy and the general walking speed of dog and human. Once matched, owners and dogs take a three-week residential course to fine-tune the dog’s training to their owner who also learns dog first aid, grooming and nutrition.
“Our dogs are precious; we want them looked after properly,” explains Anne.
All this training costs £36,000 per dog and then £5,000 every year after the dog is qualified to keep them healthy enough to work. Pathfinder’s cradle-to-grave policy means they’ll look out for the dogs past retirement, too, such as Spook, Anne’s former dog, now enjoying his twilight years. All costs are covered by the Pathfinder Dog charity, with the blind person contributing just £1 towards training, so no one has to miss out.
As for the future, Anne wants to find a place to build a dedicated training village to raise bigger numbers of these wonder dogs so more blind people can enjoy their support, independence and unconditional love.
How to help
To donate to Pathfinder Dogs, visit pathfinderdogs.org or send a cheque to payable to the Pathfinder dog programme to: North Lodge House, Castlehill Road, Wishaw North, Lanarkshire ML2 0RL. You can also send any old bras and milk and water bottle tops which they will recycle, with all the profits going to the charity, to the same postal address.
Pics © Kingsley Singleton