WE may remember collecting silver foil and milk bottle tops for the Blue Peter appeal for Guide Dogs For The Blind as children, but now we’re grown up, there’s something else even more useful we can do for Guide Dogs (as the charity is now known) - it’s a 24/7 commitment, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
The Wokingham-based service, which trains and provides dogs to support blind and partially-sighted people, is looking to recruit puppy walkers to raise and care for guide dog puppies from the age of seven weeks to between 12 and 15 months, when they are ready to begin their training.
It’s a demanding role, but most of those who take it on wouldn’t have it any other way, such as Doreen and Adrian Griffin, from Reading, who are currently looking after 11-month-old labrador Woodie, and golden retriever Esme, who is just 13 weeks old.
Seeing them walking round Newbury town centre with the puppies, the additional effort they put into basic training from the earliest days is apparent, particularly when Doreen and Adrian have only been looking after Esme for five weeks.
“We started off with just one dog at a time, but when Adrian took early retirement, we decided we could manage two , and found that having an ‘overlap’ actually helps, because the puppies learn very quickly from the older dog,” explains Doreen. “It’s not double the effort - it’s actually half the work!”
The pups attract plenty of attention from dog lovers as we stop for an al fresco coffee. “They need to get used to people, and busy places,” says Adrian. “Town walks are essential; and we also take them on buses and trains, to the supermarket and even to the airport - they’ve got to get used to the hustle and bustle.
“The man who has our first pup, Marley, rang us the other day - Marley is going to fly to California with him! It really makes us feel that what we do with the pups is worthwhile. That’s why we do this - the satisfaction of giving someone a life. Having a guide dog makes such a difference.”
Doreen and Adrian became puppy walkers about four years ago after their 14-year-old golden retriever Jason died. “Our neighbour said it was so strange not seeing us walking the dog, and she suggested puppy walking, as her mum did it,” explains Doreen. “It seemed like a good idea, as it isn’t a long-term commitment; we could take a break between pups - although we haven’t yet.”
The couple say that they found the volunteer vetting and training process very straightforward, with plenty of ongoing support from their Guide Dogs supervisor, and all food and vet bills paid for. The biggest commitment is the familiarisation excursions, which need to be more varied than a normal dog walk, and getting used to Guide Dogs’ approved glossary of commands, such as “spend” and “busies” for toileting.
Woodie and Esme are the couple’s fourth and fifth guide dog pups - of their previous charges, two have gone on to become successful guide dogs, with the other one not meeting the rigourous standards required, purely because of his fast walking pace. “He’s fine though,” says Doreen, “he now lives with the racehorse trainer Andrew Balding in Kingsclere, so he landed on his feet.”
As their first guide dog puppy, Marley was the hardest one to say goodbye too when it was time to start his full training, but a few weeks later, the Griffins were handed a new pup, “and there was no looking back after that,” says Doreen. “We can’t imagine not doing it now.”
As a Berkshire-based charity, Guide Dogs is keen to enrol more puppy walkers in the west of the county. Clare Burgess, the volunteer development manager for Guide Dogs’ Reading mobility team, is a puppy walker herself, and says: "Without puppy walkers there would be no Guide Dogs, it really is that important.
“Our puppy walkers are all wonderful; with support from their local supervisor they raise well socialised, friendly dogs ready for the exciting adventures ahead of them. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to spend my time with these amazing dogs- they are just so intelligent and seem to pick everything up so quickly.
“When I started puppy walking the training and support I received was second to none, I really would recommend it to anyone, it has been the best experience of my life,
"We are committed to increasing the number of Guide Dog partnerships, this means breeding more puppies and in turn means we need many more puppy walkers. ”
If you feel you could offer a home to a Guide Dogs puppies, contact Guide Dogs’ volunteer team on 0845 371 7771 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- First published in Out & About magazine, Jul y 2012