Pics: Patrick Boyd Photography
Bursting with energy and wagging their tails – they’re so cute you just want to take them all home. But the pups, pictured above and inset, have a special destiny ahead – to bring a lifeline to thousands of people across the UK.
I’m visiting the Guide Dogs state-of-the-art National Breeding Centre in Warwickshire to find out more about how these canine youngsters become the wonder dogs we see on the street, faithfully guiding the blind and partially sighted. The centre is nearly four years old now, but still in immaculate condition. Set in beautiful surroundings it’s the perfect place to breed and raise puppies.
Firstly, I meet some six week old puppies. They’ve been lovingly nurtured by their mums and staff at the centre and are almost ready for the first stage of training – teaming up with trained ‘puppy walking’ volunteers who care for them in their own homes and provide basic training to see if they’d be suitable Guide Dogs. There are currently 1, 400 pups being trained by Puppy Walkers all over the UK. Two out of three are successful in their initial training and progress to become Guide Dogs. The remaining third may become Buddy Dogs or Canine Partners, or go on to work for the police.
But what does it feel like to be guided by one of these amazing animals? As if on cue, I’m introduced to German Shepherd-Golden Retriever cross Eddie and led outside to an obstacle course. Centre manager Dave Hurst explains how Eddie will lead me through this course with ease. So I put on a blindfold and give it a go. It’s nerve-racking – the blindfold lets in some light and faint shapes, to show what being partially sighted is like. I feel for Eddie on my left side, lift the handle on his harness and allow him to gently lead me around cones and between scaffolding. We may have been moving at a snail’s pace but I feel like a hare on race day! Of course, Eddie does a magnificent job. “It takes a lot of courage, hard work and trust for a new owner to walk with their guide dog,” says Dave. “And as visual impairment often happens as you get older, you may be training with your first Guide Dog at 60 or 70 years of age. I once trained a lady in her 70s and was in awe of her determination.”
Dave is full of admiration for the dogs, too. “They have to remember to consider a person’s height and any extra width, making sure they don’t bump into anything with their shoulder, for example. As a dog progresses we overlap the obstacles more, to develop their initiative in finding a safe path through.” This advanced training begins at 14 months for most Guide Dogs, who have normally graduated and are working with their owners by two years old.
Lastly I meet the Breeding Programme Manager Matthew Bottomley who talks me through the incredible science involved in breeding Guide Dogs. “The latest technological advancements mean we can now work with overseas Guide Dog breeding programmes in The Netherlands, Australia and America to share frozen sperm donations from foreign stud dogs,” says Matthew. “This widens the gene pool of talent, while minimising the health risks of inbreeding. We’re also introducing Poodles to the scheme, crossing them with Labradors, as tests have shown that their coats might be more suited to potential Guide Dog owners who are unfortunately allergic to other dogs.
“In the meantime, the majority of Guide Dogs are Labrador-Golden Retriever crosses or German Shepherd-Golden Retriever crosses, as they’re reliably adaptable and robust, with the right amount of initiative and learning ability.”
‘I love every minute of being a puppy walker’
Liz Hudson is proud to play a part in training these incredible dogs. Two years ago, a friend recommended the puppy walking programme to Liz, and she hasn’t looked back. “I applied in January 2013, attended an induction in March and had my first puppy, Keira, by April,” says Liz (63). “She was just seven weeks old.”
Keira’s training was successful and she qualified as a Guide Dog last year. So with the continued support of her supervisor, Liz is now training Sissi (pictured here at nine months) and is still enjoying the process the second time around. “You bond with them, slowly introducing the collar and lead,” explains Liz. “Then establish routines for eating, sleeping and using the ‘poo pen’ as I call it!
“You introduce your puppy to new sounds and experiences, from catching the bus to going shopping in a busy supermarket, teaching them to stay focused and calm.”
Is it hard to give up a puppy you’ve bonded with? Liz always knows the time will come to pass her prodigies on. “It’s like a child leaving home for university. You just hope they do well, with the skills you’ve taught them,” she says. “But it’s such a rewarding experience. I’m proud to be on the Guide Dogs team and hope to train a few more pups yet!”
- To find out more about puppy walking roles available near you call 0845 371 7771 or visit www.guidedogs.org.uk
- Me And My Guide Dog was a two-part series which aired in June, following the progress of a litter of Guide Dogs pups first featured on TV in 2013. Catch up on ITV Player.