If you’ve read Part One of my visit to Guide Dogs (THANK YOU!!) and if not, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time! As a quick recap, I visited Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre; a little bit of heaven based in the UK and the starting point for all of the youngest (and future!) Guide Dogs you may see out and about with their human partners. I rather love the fact you can visit and actually experience where these dogs start their journey to enable them to then go on to help many of us humans! Before I joined the tour, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to actually hear firsthand how these dogs of tomorrow go on to help and actually change lives. As we’ve toured the Centre in Part One, join me today for Part Two as I introduce you to a guide dog owner so you can explore this wonderful partnership between dog and human, along with some important messages.
INTRODUCING JOHN & KAHN
When I arrived at the Centre, I waited eagerly in the warm and inviting reception area where I was greeted by John Garrett and his beautiful guide dog Kahn; a gorgeous Labrador with such a stunning golden complexion! (I wish my complexion was the same!!) We were also joined by Elaine, John’s support worker. While we walked into another part of the Centre for a sit down and good old chat, it was a great opportunity to experience John and Kahn working together; navigating doorways, tables and chairs until we got to our destination. Amazing! Kahn had his harness on, so knew he was working and with encouragement and a few prompts from John, the partners made it look simple. I soon learnt that this was actually a relatively new partnership between the pair, having only been together a few months.
GUIDE DOG ATTACKS
This leads to a tough reality owning a guide dog can bring, which you need to be aware of so we can help ensure it stops. Sadly John’s last dog, Eddie, had to be withdrawn from service earlier than expected as he was attacked by another dog while out walking in his harness with John. While Eddie survived (thank goodness!) the attack altered his temperament towards other dogs and his association with the harness which, although completely understandable, made it impossible for him to complete his role as a guide dog. So disappointing not only for John who had built up a special bond, but also Guide Dogs as a whole after all the time, training and donors money which had contributed to him becoming a guide dog.
Unfortunately I hear from John this is actually more common than we realise, with approximately 10 dog attacks on a guide dog nationally per month. A truly shocking statistic and something Guide Dogs are working hard to bring attention to and change, by campaigning for dogs to be kept on leads when near a guide dog. This is when the majority are sadly attacked; while they work in their harnesses, trying to do a good job, which makes it even worse. Thankfully, given the amazing National Breeding Centre, it meant another dog would soon be part of John’s life. Enter Kahn…
THE PERFECT MATCH
Guide Dogs work hard to ensure the right partnership is formed. The careful breeding is the first step, with training the next and once they have passed, Guide Dogs go about making the perfect match!! John described being paired with the right guide dog as “like a dating agency” as an individual doesn’t just pair up with the first available dog, there are various factors to consider such as:
1) The height of the dog and the handler. Like us, dogs come in all shapes and sizes even when they’re the same breed, so it is important their stats are matched with their handlers E.g. Whilst the harnesses can vary in length and style, it is still important to ensure the handler can walk with the dog without having to compromise their posture too much. Therefore a taller man/woman would benefit from a taller dog and vice versa with a shorter man/woman.
2) The stride of the dog and the handler. Again, as with us humans, dogs walk at different paces. Some walk with smaller steps and others have a larger gait, therefore each guide dog is assessed to see how they walk to ensure they’re matched accordingly with a similar handler. This means there are no dogs or humans left behind by one another when out and about!
3) The lifestyle of the handler. Everyone has different lifestyle needs such as commute time to work, type of job, day to day living arrangements etc and these all come into play when deciding which is the right dog. For example, as John works, he comes into contact with a lot of people whilst there. He also attends meetings, therefore it is very important for Kahn to be able to sit quietly during such times and not be overwhelmed or excitable around people (which he did exceedingly well when I met him; even with many people and other dogs walking past him as we sat down). Guide Dogs know which character traits to look for when assessing puppies and matching them with their new home.
MOVING FROM A TO B
If you asked most people about the role of a guide dog, most would assume their purpose is to help with mobility in the wider world, which is largely correct. For example, guide dogs help their handler avoid an object by signalling in a particular way, so the handler knows what to expect or avoid ahead. Changing road layouts and surfaces, such as the removal of kerbs across our towns and cities to make areas more ‘pedestrian friendly!’ as well as electric/hybrid cars which may be better for the environment but have no sound, all contribute to making life even harder and all the more reason to have a guide dog. John explained though how the removal of a kerb led to a dangerous situation involving a guide dog owner unwittingly walking down the middle of the road as the kerb had been removed (a guide dog would normally use as a kerb as a tool to acknowledge the difference between a road and pavement). This has meant changing the training of guide dogs so they can react to such changes in the environment.
Guide Dogs are working hard to raise awareness of how such changes can affect those with sight loss via various campaigns such as ‘Streets Ahead’ and ‘Safe and Sound’. They’re also shining light on the work of Guide Dogs and some of the issues affecting guide dog owners further by introducing a guide dog puppy (the gorgeous Clover!) to ITV’s This Morning, so you can follow the progress of a guide dog training directly from your living room! Fantastic!! You can find out about all of these in detail via the links at the end of this post. It goes to show Guide Dogs isn’t just about cute dogs (although that’s obviously a key part!)
NOT JUST ABOUT MOBILITY
Whilst mobility assistance is key, it is clear this is just part of the role of a guide dog. John has 20 years experience of owning a guide dog and as he explained “losing sight doesn’t mean losing your freedom” but it can affect your confidence. A guide dog can actually be someone’s confidence to leave their home; a place they know inside out. Often the decision to leave this place of security can be a big one. Having a guide dog by your side can make all the difference to venturing outside and living a normal life.
The confidence a guide dog can bring is clear to see with John, as not only does he have a guide dog himself, but he also works for Guide Dogs as a Volunteer Consultant; a role he has had for over three and a half years and includes working to help produce the quarterly magazine for volunteers, NBC Newshound. John’s former dog, Eddie, was actually the most recent cover star! No doubt owning a guide dog and experiencing them has given John the extra confidence to undertake this role, which is completely inspiring.
Through his work, John knows only too well all the hard work which goes into training new guide dogs (it takes until a dog is approximately 16 to 18 months of age to be ready to act as a fully fledged guide dog and this is all done via the help of volunteers as well as full time members of staff). Remember, if you’d like to become a volunteer there are many available ways in which you can help (and you can then get your paws on the magazine!) You can find details about this and all aspects of Guide Dogs at the end of this post.
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND
You’ve now heard all about how the pups come into this world; how they’re trained and matched to their partner; how they help and some of the realities of owning a guide dog but I’d like to end this post about my time with John, Kahn and Guide Dogs with a very poignant point that was mentioned to me by John which summarises this partnership perfectly. He said a guide dog is often “an unconditional best friend.”
I think the photo above shows just how true this is and it is all thanks to the incredible work of Guide Dogs (and all their supporters via volunteering and of course the donations that without, they simply couldn’t continue). Although Kahn probably shouldn’t do this when he’s working (!) it demonstrates the special bond between dog and handler. Yes, the dogs are there to do a job (which they do so very well, thanks to the meticulous work involved in breeding, raising and training by Guide Dogs) but lets not forget the fundamental joy that these fabulous creatures bring; to all of us.
A huge thank you goes to John and Kahn for speaking with me and sharing the experience of guide dog ownership. A big thank you to Pippa Block for organising my visit and of course a thank you (and huge round of applause!) to Guide Dogs for being quite simply, brilliant!! It’s also important for us to mention it’s Guide Dogs week October 3rd to 11th October. Why not look at ways you can join in. We will!! Let us know if you’re going to be a part of it as we’d love to hear your stories!!
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