Sunday, April 20, 2014
On a foggy Friday morning in Sidmouth I had the chance to experience at first hand what a stroll along the seafront feels like for the country’s 4,800 guide dog owners.
I was being directed along The Esplanade by 18-month-old Norton, a German shepherd-golden retriever cross, and hoping that he wouldn’t lead me into the road or decide to chase after a seagull.
And although it felt like I was weaving all over the pavement, guide dog trainer Jason Mann assured me I was walking in a straight line.
“It’s a fine balance with our dogs,” he explained. “We want them to be willing and responsive to what their owner is telling them, but there are times that we need them to disobey what they are being told.
“For example, if there’s a hole in the pavement, the dog will stop, but you may be telling him to go.
“It’s all down to building that relationship, so the owner can trust that when the dog is not doing what he’s being told, they know there’s a good reason.”
Guide dogs begin their training at just seven weeks old – and it can take nearly two years before they’re ready to work.
I’d met up with Jason Mann and Sylvia Waite to find out more about how the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (known simply as Guide Dogs) prepare their dogs to do their life-changing work.
Ottery St Mary resident Jason works as a mobility instructor and is responsible for the last three months of a dog’s instruction.
He was accompanied by the composed and well-behaved Norton, who was in the final stages of his training.
Sylvia, who volunteers as a puppy trainer, had brought along the enthusiastic Rags, an eight-month-old labrador-golden retriever cross who was still learning the basics.
Many of the UK’s guide dogs, including Norton and Rags, begin life at the Guide Dogs breeding centre in Warwickshire.
Some 1,200 puppies are bred annually, mainly from pedigree labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds – breeds well known for their loyalty and willingness to work.
At seven weeks the pups are sent out to new homes all over the country, which is where volunteers like Sylvia come in.
“The dogs live with me like they would with their eventual owner,” she explained. “It sets them up for life at home.
“We take the training very slowly to begin with, and start with the basic commands like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ and ‘down’ before moving on to teach them how to deal with things like steps and doors.
“But one of the most important things we teach them is the whistle command. It is very important that the dog comes when whistled.”
At the 12 to 14 month mark, the dogs are usually ready to move on to the next stage.
“A supervisor will look at the dog and see whether they are ready,” said Sylvia.
“I suppose they’re a bit like children – they develop at different rates. Some are ready for more at 10 months, some take longer.”
After learning the basics, the dogs move on to a professional trainer, where they spend four to five months learning advanced guiding commands.
Jason explained that Sidmouth is a perfect training ground because of the amount of distractions for the dogs – particularly during the tourist season.
“We teach them how to stop at a kerb edge and how to avoid obstacles,” he said. “And, importantly, we teach them how to do that while not being distracted by other dogs, birds, and people.”
However not every dog makes the cut. Out of the 1,200 puppies bred each year, only around 800 will make successful guide dogs.
The trainers keep a close eye on how the animals are developing, and if it’s clear they won’t make the grade they are found alternative careers.
“For example I had one who liked to sniff a lot,” said Jason. “We tried to train him out of it, but he just stopped to sniff everything.
“The decision was made that he wouldn’t make a good guide dog, but he went on to work for Customs.”
Others have gone on to work with the police and as medical detection dogs.
Jason, who has 15 years’ experience of working with guide dogs, then takes the animals on for the final three months of their training.
He’s responsible for matching the dog up with its future owner, as well as teaching the new owner the various commands.
“All the while I’m thinking ‘What kind of person will this dog go to?’ ” explained Jason.
“I look at the waiting list and see who he would go well with.
“You have to take factors such as walking speed, how active they are and how much exercise they need into account.”
At any one point there are around 60 people waiting for a guide dog in the South West.
“It’s like doing a kind of blind date,” he added. “It’s all about matching up the personalities of dog and owner.
“And when they get their owner, they will become their companion for the rest of their life.”
The charity is always on the lookout for people in East Devon to volunteer as puppy trainers. Anyone interested can contact the Exeter office on 0845 372 7407 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on the work of the charity can be found at www.guidedogs.org.uk or by emailing email@example.com.