THE SEEING DOGS ALLIANCE
By Ann Evans
Photos courtesy of Rob Tysall and Seeing Dogs Alliance
The Seeing Dogs Alliance is possibly a charity that you aren’t yet familiar with, although its origins stem from 1979. The aim of this small charity is to provide blind and partially sighted people with professionally trained guide dogs, known as Seeing Dogs.
Since 1979, Seeing Dogs has been in operation only on a limited basis with guide dog owners and their families running the charity. In 2001 it was relaunched, and in 2016 The Seeing Dogs Alliance was accepted as a member of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), the world governing body for all the Guide Dog Schools.
Seeing Dogs was set up as an alternative source of guide dogs to Guide Dogs for the Blind, concentrating purely on the issue of training a dog and partnering it with a blind person, to give them greater independence and mobility. All seeing dogs and seeing dog puppies are raised and trained whilst living in a home environment.
To date, they have trained and provided 27 dogs, and with the passing of the years there are currently 14 working, and three puppies being reared. The cost of rearing, training and then supporting that dog for its working life, amounts to between £25,000 and £35,000 a year. Apart from the trainer, there are no other paid staff within the organisation. The charity receives no government funding and relies on the generosity of the the public. Their main aim at the moment is to get their name more widely known, and enlist the support of fund raisers.
A major driving force behind the charity is Chris Parker, who has been a guide dog owner for 52 years, in which time she has had five guide dogs. Chris was born with retinoblastoma (tumours on the retina), a rare childhood cancer. She was doubly enucleated before she was two and has never had any sight. Not that it stopped her from a career in the Civil Service, incredibly, as a shorthand typist and then as a computer programmer.
Chris has had five guide dogs, the first in 1965 and her last one, Sally, in 2004. In 2013 she became a Seeing Dog owner. Roxy, a German Shepherd bitch, had been bought from a pet shop, and then donated to Seeing Dogs as an unwanted pet.
Chris said: “Roxy is very attractive, but she has poor hips. Everyone wanted to walk away from her, apart from me. So I decided not to give her to a normal client, as she might have to retire early due to her hips, so I would have her. My last guide dog, Sally, was coming up for retirement, so I knew that by the time Roxy was trained, Sally would probably have retired. Roxy has turned out to be a very good Seeing Dog and I know I was right to persevere with her.”
The Chairman of The Seeing Dogs Alliance is Neil Ewart, former manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Breeding Centre. He says: “I think having more than one organisation to provide a guide dog for a blind or visually impaired person is a healthy thing. It should give people wanting a dog more choice. We actively encourage people to go on both organisations if possible.”
Due to financial restraints, they currently have just the two trainers. One is John Grave, who lives in Kent, and has been training dogs for 30 years, firstly in the Royal Air Force, then police dog training, followed by Guide Dogs for the Blind for ten years.
His role is to select the puppies he feels are right for the job. He then has to find a puppy rearer where the pup will spend the first 12 months of its life being socialised and getting used to everyday sights and sounds. John then takes over the formal training for 8-9 months in his own home. This is followed by working closely with the recipient in their home for 3-4 weeks, making sure the blind person and the dog work well together. Follow up visits continue to make sure all is going smoothly, and help is provided whenever it is needed.
John said: “Puppy rearers socialise the dogs, getting them used to every kind of situation for their role as Seeing Dogs, and also turning them into well rounded family pets. That role is voluntary, and the charity covers vets’ bills, and provides a daily allowance to cover other expenses, including food. The blind recipient of the dog will pay for the dog’s food and the vet bills, and they can take out health insurance to help with vet bills.
Meeting up with John last autumn, John was training three dogs, Marvin, a 5-year-old golden retriever/Labrador cross; Zena, an 18-month-old Hungarian Wire Haired Viszla; and Penny, a 20-month-old Chocolate Labrador.
He said: “Marvin is a fully working dog whose owner passed away, so he is about to go to a new client. Zena is a blond bombshell who loves to be the centre of attention. She and Penny will be ready to go to recipients in about two months. Both are lovely dogs and very willing to please.”
He added that Seeing Dogs doesn’t train long cane users. “Long cane is about finding obstacles, seeing dogs is about avoiding obstacles. We train by clicker training and positive reinforcement.
Training is about making mistakes. The dog has to make mistakes before it knows. And in these training situations you must not crush the dog’s confidence.
“Eventually it will be the recipient’s responsibility to get this right, so the trainer also works with the new owner for 3-4 weeks in their own home, then leaves them for about that same period of time, before returning to see if there are any problems. But this isn’t set in stone, it depends on the client and the dog. Clients get priority for a replacement dog. That person already has the skills of working with a dog and we don’t want those skills to go.”
Reiterating those sentiments is Roy Bee of Bedfordshire. Roy had his first guide dog back in 1962 and his latest dog, Treacle, is his seventh dog – this being the first one from the Seeing Dogs charity.
Roy says: “I do have a lot of experience of working with a guide dog, and I find this is needed when you get a new dog. Back in the 1960s and 70s you would go to one of their training centres for a whole month and there you would give your full unadulterated attention on getting to know the dog and working with it – with the trainers on hand to help every step of the way.”
“These days, with most of the Guide Dogs for the Blind’s training centres shut, that period of the client and the dog getting used to one another takes place over just three or four weeks in a hotel room. And the dog is trained to take it’s owner along a particular route which it gets used to. But I want to be able to go everywhere – and I do!”
“I love going to new places and getting my dog accustomed to new places so they have to use their initiative. But I know I draw on my experience of that early training, which not everybody has had, which is a shame.”
Since chatting to trainer John, both Zena and Penny are now actively working with blind people. Zena has been partnered with 19-year-old Paige Lillywhite of Southampton. Zena is Paige’s first guide dog. Penny is working with Grania Brennan of Bridgend.
Paige told me of her experiences. “I was partially sighted until 10 or 11, and then I went totally blind and have been ever since. then. I applied to Guide Dogs for the Blind twice, but was rejected both times. Then I heard about The Seeing Dogs Alliance. I met John Grave and he decided whether or not I’d be suitable – he passed judgement, and thankfully, he decided I would be suitable!
“To begin with, Zena was more excited about everybody, but now she’s realised that we are a team.
You have a month of training at home. The trainer works with you every day, teaching the commands you need to know; learning routes, making sure that we are safe enough and we know enough to be left on our own. After four weeks, providing all is well, you are qualified.”
Paige says that Zena has made a huge difference to her life. She continued: “I would never go out on my own before, even though I could manage these things with a cane. But now with Zena beside me, I want to do these things. That’s the difference! With Zena, I can walk to the shops or to the gym, I can go and catch a bus to meet my grandparents. Also people talk to me more now when I’m out with Zena.
“I want to say a massive thank you to everyone connected to Seeing Dogs. I really like them because they care about you. For them it’s quality not quantity. The dedication shown by Chris and her husband is amazing – and running it on so little money, but they are totally dedicated to making it work. John Grave is a brilliant trainer and does so much. I wasn’t going to be given a chance to have a dog, but thanks to John and Seeing Dogs, they have given me that chance, and I’m so grateful.”
COULD YOU BE A PUPPY REARER?
Carla Brown of the Isle of Sheppey is a mum of three young children. She volunteered to be a puppy rearer in 2016 and was given Obi, a Golden Retriever/Labrador cross when he was 8 weeks old.
Carla said, “We’d had a retired guide dog from the charity who was so lovely and brought us so much joy, I thought it would be nice to give something back to the charity that had given us such a nice family pet in Lola. I have young children and it is a really lovely thing for them to learn there are people in the world who are disabled.
“As a puppy rearer, you have to have your mind set on knowing that when the puppy is a year old you will be giving it back. I don’t know how I’m going to feel when the time comes, but I know that it is a lovely, rewarding thing to do. And you know that the pup is going on to give someone their independence and change their lives.”
“I know that when I hand Obi back, I’ll be handed a new puppy, so that helps ease the feeling of loss.” With a smile she added, “So I hand them a well trained, sociable dog, and they give me an untrained, chewing puppy!”
CAN YOU HELP?
Throughout their lives, all Seeing Dog Alliance puppies and dogs live in home environments, cared for and loved as part of the family. The charity is totally reliant on public gifts and donations, and does not receive any government funding. It welcomes with open arms anyone who can help in any way. Their hope is to enlist more volunteers to raise money, seek sponsorship, spread the word about the charity and socialise puppies.
THE EARLY DAYS
In 2000, Chris Parker and another guide dog owner, Val Kinder, were intending to form a new charity to train guide dogs and then discovered there was already one in existence. This was the Mobility Aid and Guide Dog Alliance, formed by Howard Robson in 1979 an ex-Guide Dogs for the Blind Association Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. A meeting with Howard led to Chris and Val being able to take on the responsibility for the charity. They formed a new group of trustees and changed the name to The Guide Dog Alliance and relaunched the charity in August 2001. To avoid any confusion with Guide Dogs, they renamed the charity The Seeing Dogs Alliance.
For more details, visit: www.seeingdogs.org.uk
Contact: The Seeing Dogs Alliance,
116 Potters Lane,
Tel: 01483 765556