The Rotary Club of Henley Bridge were delighted to welcome two speakers from Guide Dogs for the Blind to their latest Zoom meeting. The two speakers had very different experiences of the Charity, Yvonne Crane and her dog Velvet, a black Labrador, is a dog breeder for Guide Dogs. Nicola Pamphilon who is totally blind relies on her dog Kimber, another black Labrador, to make independence possible.
Yvonne explained that she looks after Velvet who has a litter of puppies once a year. She has responsibility for raising the puppies until they are approximately 12 weeks old when they go to Guide Dogs training and are found a home where they will be raised until they are 14 months old. During this time they go everywhere with the family, get used to different places, environments, people and learn the basics. This includes getting used to the commands which will follow the dog through their working life such as sit, stop and walk to heel.
Once they get to 14 months the dogs go off to training camp for proper puppy training which takes one month. The dogs get used to their harness and continue their training learning things such as ‘constructive’ disobedience. For example, if there is a danger, a car parked on the pavement or construction problems they lead the blind person away from the danger. In addition, the dog needs to be aware of the environment to ensue that their handler doesn’t walk into a tree branch or other overhead danger
Once the dogs have been through their training they get ready to meet their new ‘forever’ handler. Lots of thought goes into matching dogs with their new handlers, whether it is a town or country setting, whether the owner has a busy or quite sedentary life style and many other factors. Once the dogs and their new handlers meet they start to get used to each other. This requires three weeks at dog training school and a week at home learning local routes and daily routines. It is a very intensive training which makes dogs and handlers fit for active living.
Nicola told the Club she had a rare degenerative disease which had led to her becoming totally blind in her twenties. This process had taken away her self confidence and made her feel trapped in her home. Getting Kimber had made a radical difference to her life, bringing back her self esteem and allowing her to get out and about. She has had Kimber for 6 years and relies on him in many ways. Nicola and Kimber have regular assessments to ensure that their working relationship is going well.
Nicola told us some interesting facts about meeting people who have a guide dog; you should always ask the handler if it is alright to pat or speak to the dog and if you see someone with a guide dog who is holding the lead rather than the harness, the person needs some help, so always ask. During lock down Nicola, like everyone else has found life difficult. Getting out and about has been more difficult and following the rules has led to more restrictions as she and Kimber have been having less exercise and she can’t wait until everyone is able to meet again. Nicola told us about the different ways of supporting Guide Dog’s from donating money to bringing up puppies, if anyone would like to find out more just go to www.guidedogs.org.uk