What do you think when you see a guide dog help a blind or partially sighted person negotiate a busy road or crowded town centre?
It often looks like human and animal working in perfect harmony, but there is a lot of work that goes into producing a guide dog you can trust to look after someone’s wellbeing.
Good guide dogs are not born – they are trained. And that process starts with volunteer puppy walkers who play a vital role in ensuring little furballs become responsible canines capable of coping with everything life in the 21st century can throw at them.
Guide Dogs Scotland is a charity responsible for partnering people the length and breadth of the country with dogs who can provide them with life-changing assistance.
The charity’s puppy walkers prepare the dogs for their future careers by familiarising them with home, towns and public transport.
David Smith, Guide Dogs Scotland puppy training supervisor, said: “We want someone who is willing to take the dog into different environments and even take them into their workplace.”
Puppy walkers provide full-time care and education for a puppy from six weeks of age until they are 14-months-old. The puppies then leave to begin formal advanced training at the charity’s Forfar Training School.
In the last four years Kay Connar (50), of Moriston Court, Grangemouth, has helped start five puppies on the path to becoming guide dogs and, with help from 11-year-old daughter Kaylah, is currently caring for black Labrador 11-month-old Archie and nine-week-old Morris.
Kay said: “It all started when I saw a man down the town walking a guide dog puppy and then my neighbour, who is blind, was talking about the length of time it took to get a guide dog.
“I then went on the website and signed up.”
Kay began socialising her first guide dog candidate back in 2011. Sadly that dog, Zaffa, did not go on to become a fully fledged guide dog.
Zaffa may not have made it to the guide dog level, but he is being considered for another important Guide Dogs Scotland initiative, Buddy Dogs – a relatively new service aimed at partially sighted children and young people.
Dogs like Zaffa, not suited for the full guide dog role, are placed with families and schools where young people get the opportunity to feed, groom and walk their buddy dog, ultimately gaining the skills they might need for future guide dog ownership.
And talking about guide dog ownership, Kay’s second puppy, Fenton, is now a fully qualified guide dog and paired with a blind person.
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Kay. “There’s always going to be more demand than supply when it comes to guide dogs. And Guide Dogs UK is always on the lookout for volunteers to help with the puppies.
“We had a letter from Fenton’s new owner, and he thanked us for the great job we had done for him. We also got a photograph of Fenton with his official Guide Dog harness.”
Kay admitted her third puppy, Hooper, was her favourite. He is currently going through his guide dog training in Forfar.
She said: “You do get attached to them and it can be quite upsetting when they have to move on. If you didn’t get attached to them like that and upset when they left then you wouldn’t be the right kind of person to do this anyway.
“Before your puppy goes away for training, they try to bring your next puppy in, so you have two staying with you for a short while.”
While Archie is almost ready to leave the nest for his next training stage, Morris will be staying with Kay and Kaylah until well into 2016.
Family pet Dale, also a black Labrador, is a good natured eight-year-old chap and has no problems with little lodgers like Morris and Archie coming into his home every year.
“Dale gets special treatment,” said Kay. “And he gets allowed up on the couch.”
Guide Dogs Scotland provide puppy walkers like Kay with everything they need to look after their furry guests, including food, cages and vet fees.
Kay said: “I would encourage anyone to do this, but I would say they would have to be someone who works part-time, like myself, because of the time they need to devote to the dog.
“I work from home as a child minder so this is ideal for me.”
There are currently over 500 guide dog owners in Scotland and each guide dog partnership costs around £50,000 to support throughout the guide dog’s working lifetime.
This means fundraising is also a vital part of a volunteer’s role and Kay has helped coin in cash for Guide Dogs Scotland, which does not receive any financial assistance from the government, through a variety of events.
Visit www.guidedogsscotland.org.uk for more information about volunteering, puppy walking and fundraising.