25th April is International Guide Dog Day!
Guide dogs are truly amazing animals. They can completely transform the lives of visually impaired people, allowing them freedom and mobility like everybody else. The dedication and loyalty they show for their owners is incredible- it takes a very special dog and lots of training to become a guide dog.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is a charity committed to helping blind and partially sighted people. They provide many services to help and support visually impaired people and with the help of their volunteers, they breed and train puppies to become guide dogs.
Once their training is complete, these amazing pooches are then matched to their new owners to assist them with tasks in their everyday life.
In honour of International Guide Dog Day, Heathfield Vets client and guide dog puppy walker, Rebecca Bonnick, has very kindly answered a few questions for us about her experiences training guide dog puppies.
We are very lucky to have her as a client, as it means we get watch all of the beautiful guide dog puppies she fosters learn and grow before they move on to the next stage of their training.
How long have you been fostering guide dogs?
I have been a volunteer guide dog puppy walker, training and looking after puppies for four and half years.
What inspired you to begin working with guide dogs?
I was inspired to begin guide dog puppy walking for a number of reasons. I love dogs and am passionate about them and have two of my own, Eliza and Harmony both Golden Retriever cross Labradors and have always loved training dogs.
One of my main influences to puppy walk has been the experiences of working with blind and visually impaired adults and children.
As a teenager I lived near the guide dog breeding and training centre and saw many guide dog puppies being trained and always wanted to do it. We adopted one of the withdrawn puppies as our pet and I loved training him.
I volunteered near-by at a home for blind children at weekends, helping to look after them. Then as a primary teacher I have worked with blind children in my class. More recently I volunteered weekly for 2 years to work with blind adults helping them do craft work. During this time I met many people with guide dogs and saw how the dogs changed people’s lives and helped them.
A puppy walker and puppy came to visit the meeting and told me about a meeting to recruit puppy walkers. I went along and was inspired, meeting lots of puppy walkers and puppies and with all my background of working with visually impaired people over the years I decided to become a puppy walker myself.
What is involved in training a guide dog puppy?
There are many challenges whilst looking after and training a guide dog puppy. One challenge is starting all over again each year with house training and a very young puppy.
It is a big commitment as you have to be with the puppies 24/7 and they go nearly everywhere with you. I take my puppies to guide dog training classes and train them on buses and trains, in shopping centres and lifts, supermarkets, fire stations, doctors, cinema, theatres many other places.
They also need free running and socialising and playing with. They cannot be left for more than an hour or two.
What is the biggest challenge throughout the fostering and training process?
The biggest challenge is letting the puppy go after having loved and nurtured them for over a year and them being part of your life and family.
What has been the most rewarding part of working with guide dog puppies?
The most rewarding part, apart from the pleasure and love they give to you, is knowing that they will make such a difference to someone’s life and be a life changer.
However much I will be heartbroken and miss the much loved puppy when they go, I know I don’t ‘need’ them but someone else really needs them to change their lives.
How many guide dogs have you helped train?
I have trained four guide dog puppies so far.
My present puppy, Autumn, is a delightful, lively 17 week old puppy and is doing very well.
Connie, my second pup went as a brood bitch and had 9 little life changing puppies. She is having her second litter soon.
I puppy walked one of her puppies, Jasmine. She left me in January and I miss her greatly but it is wonderful to hear how she is doing. She is just about to finish the first part of her training in harness and will shortly be going on to advanced training where she will be matched with someone to be their guide dog.
The first puppy I had was Harmony who I kept, as she was withdrawn as she is scared of various noises. She is a wonderful dog but was not to be a guide dog.
Heathfield Vets have cared for and looked after Harmony, Jasmine and now Autumn.
Will you take on more in the future?
I enjoy puppy walking and the training classes with all the other guide dog puppies and look forward to training many others.
Thank you to Mrs Bonnick for taking part in our interview for International Guide Dog Day!
If you are inspired by Rebecca’s story, or would like to know more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please visit their website where they have lots of information about the services they provide and how you can get involved.