Could you tell me a little about the Guide Dogs charity?
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was set up in 1931 by two women, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond. The two women decided that they wanted to help the victims of World War One who suffered sight loss, so they trained the first ever guide dogs in UK. They did this from a garage in Merseyside and now 85 years later, the charity is the world’s biggest breeder and trainer of working dogs. We currently support over 5000 working guide dogs within the UK. We call them partnerships, as it’s about the guide dog owner and guide dog working together.
We also help lots of other people through our My-Guide Service. This is where someone may be interested in having a guide dog but perhaps hasn’t got the skills or mobility to own one yet. Instead they might work with one of our My Guide volunteers on certain routes in order to work together to build skills and confidence. Alternatively, they might be someone who is in between dogs that still wants to get out and about. The volunteers help with those specific goals together.
“We work with children right from babies to teach them mobility skills, confidence and independent living skills.”
Most learning is done through sight so if you are a visually-impaired child, that could be 80 percent you’re missing out on. We have ‘habilitation workers’ who work with the children to build those skills and also they provide educational and family support. Guide Dogs also has campaigns. This includes a current campaign to stop people parking on pavements, because as a guide dog owner if you come across a car on the pavement, the dog has to then negotiate how to get around the car often meaning having to step into the road, which can be very dangerous.
That’s one thing we are really passionate about, making a more accessible world for people living with sight loss. Every hour someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. So, Guide Dogs are here to make sure they don’t lose their freedom as well.
Can you tell us a little about Ruby and what makes her such a good working dog?
Ruby is a mix of golden retriever and flat coat retriever, making her look like a black golden retriever. She is just over 18 months of age and she is in the final stages of her advanced training. Ruby is a really bright and well-natured dog. Her trainer Kirsten says that she is laid-back and easily handled. They’ve currently been working on Ruby’s confidence in busier areas because she found that quite intimidating at first. Now she enjoys going out in these areas and in particular, she likes working through indoor shopping centres. She is a girl who likes to shop!
Currently, she is coming towards the end of her advanced training and will be matched with a new owner in the next couple of months. They will look at Ruby’s traits and look at what the people on our waiting list need. Ruby and her new owner will attend classes together for four weeks and then she will be fully qualified before her second birthday.
The majority of Ruby’s training treats are from her food but her favourite high reward treat is dog-specific sausage. She has also got a gingerbread man toy that she carries around with her.
Ruby was named through our ‘Name a Puppy’ scheme. For a gift of £5,000 people, are able to name and meet the guide dog puppy and also follow them throughout their first year of puppy walking. Ruby was named By Forthglade, her official sponsors throughout her 2-year training.
What roles do the dogs play for the people who have sight loss?
The main role of the guide dog is to work with someone who has sight loss so they are able to get around freely and independently. This includes, negotiating obstacles and hazards whilst they’re out, such as road works, curbs, roads, street furniture like wheelie bins etc.
This also includes higher obstacles which might not affect the dogs themselves, but obviously, will affect the owner. The dogs also provide companionship and give people with sight loss a sense of confidence.
What training do the dogs undertake?
All of our training is positive and reward based. It starts from seven weeks of age when the dog leaves our breeding centre and is placed into the home of a volunteer ‘puppy walker’. We call them puppy walkers but they are really puppy parents. It will live with them for around 12 months until the dog is around 14 months of age. During that time the puppy learns basic obedience and commands that most dogs would use. The dog also gets accustomed to different environments that they may have to encounter as a guide dog. The puppy walker will take them on different modes of transport and also into shops, restaurants, leisure and health facilities – anywhere a guide dog might go. At 14 months old, the dog leaves the puppy walker and goes to a local training site
This is the first time the dog learns to walk in harness in a straight line but avoid basic obstacles. Once they have mastered that, they move onto advanced training. They learn to avoid advanced obstacles and also operate buttons on traffic lights and lifts. They will put their nose onto the button so that the person who can’t see will be able to feel where the button is. Once the dog has grasped that, the trainer will look at the waiting list for their area, look at the dog and try and find the best match. Once they have been matched, they will go into training with their new owner away from the home environment. Once they have done that they will qualify at just under two years of age. Then they work together until the dog is around nine or ten.
“We always visit on a regular basis and have a 24 hour phone-line in case of any issue and we like to make sure they are both still happy and safe working together.”
When the dog reaches around nine and a half we start visiting more often to understand when the dog is ready to retire. We try and make sure there is no gap in between if they want to retrain with a new guide dog. If the owner can keep the dog and a working dog then they are able to. If they don’t feel they can’t cope with that, they can nominate a close friend or family member and then if that isn’t able to happen the dog will get offered back to the puppy walker who had them for the first year. If that isn’t possible then we have rehoming staff who help find loving homes for dogs available for adoption, with people who have applied online through the rehoming section on our website.
Guide dogs are discouraged from jumping up as this can be dangerous for their owners and is not good social behaviour. All guide dogs have play time so they can be a ‘normal’ dog, but we do not allow them to play with balls. This is so if they encounter ball games when working in harness, they do not try to join in. The training treats that they are given are usually from their normal food, all guide dogs are on a controlled diet, although we do sometimes use high reward treats for more complex training.
How do you fund the projects?
We rely on public donations and companies to keep our life-changing work going. In 2016, less than one percent of the money the charity received was from government funding. To give an example, everyone of our guide dogs from birth to retirement costs over £56,000 and we have 5000 working guide dogs within the UK. It’s a lot of money that we have to find each year, so any support people can give makes a massive difference.
To find out more about Ruby’s journey or even the role of a Guide Dog puppy walker visit http://forthglade.com/2017/02/
To find out more about Guide Dogs and how you can be involved, including how to name a guide dog puppy, please visit www.guidedogs.org.uk