Photos courtesy of Rob Tysall and the Seeing Dog Alliance.
Ann Evans discovers The Seeing Dog Alliance, a UK charity providing blind and visually impaired people with Seeing Dogs, giving them greater independence.
Most people have heard of Guide Dogs for the Blind, far fewer will have heard of the UK charity, The Seeing Dog Alliance which also trains dogs to partner blind and visually impaired people.
Seeing Dogs began way back in 1979 when a few enthusiastic guide dog owners and their families started the charity. Back then it was run on a very limited basis with guide dog owners and their families running the charity. The pioneers in those days included Howard Robson, an ex-Guide Dogs for the Blind Association Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, the late Mrs Valerie Kinder and her husband, Wally, Gill Shepherd who is now chairperson of the charity and Mrs Chris Parker – a driving force behind the charity. Chris was born with retinoblastoma (tumours on the retina), a rare childhood cancer and has never had any sight. Not that it stopped her from having a successful career in the Civil Service, incredibly as a shorthand typist.
In 2001 The Seeing Dog Alliance was relaunched, and by the following year had raised enough funds to have their first Seeing Dogs puppy, Willow. Dog trainer, John Grave who had worked as an RAF Police Dog trainer for 7-years and as a dog trainer for Guide Dogs for the Blind for 10-years was asked to help with training. He stepped in and has since trained every Seeing Dog for the charity as well as selecting suitable puppies and pairing the right dog to the right client. This year the charity has been able to take on another trainer, Sue Scott, a fully qualified and very experienced person having worked for Guide Dogs for many years. Sue’s arrival doubles the charity’s capacity to train dogs and pair them with people in need.
Any blind or visually impaired person in need of a dog is encouraged to apply to Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Seeing Dog Alliance. The charities are not in competition with each other, Seeing Dogs is simply an alternative option. In fact, Seeing Dog Alliance, now purchase their puppies from Guide Dogs for the Blind or Dogs for Good, who have their own breeding programmes.
Since 2002 they have successfully reared, trained and paired more than 35 dogs. 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.
A trainer personally goes to meet everyone who applies for a Seeing Dog in order to gauge their lifestyle and understand the size and personality of the dog that would best suit them. John Grave said, “When providing a dog for a client, it’s not always practical to go on a first come first served basis. The client and dog need to be well matched. You look at the character and size of the dog and the person, and you look at the workload.”
He explained how some clients are very active, travelling on the tube and buses, going into work or involved in lots of activities, so they want a dog who loves being lively, busy and on the go. Whereas another client might lead a more relax way of life and need a dog to accompany them to the local shops or around the park, so would be best suited to a dog with a more sedate and calm personality.
However, those who do take priority, are clients whose Seeing Dog has gone into retirement. “We will do our best to pair them up with a new dog as soon as we can,” said John. “One reason being because they’ve been used to having a dog, so not to have one and go back to using a cane would seriously affect their life. Plus, they already have the knowledge of how to work with a dog so this cuts down on the time I spend with the client ensuring they can work well with a dog.”
For the first 12 months of a puppy’s life, it lives with a family where it grows accustomed to the sights and sounds of everyday life. It’s socialised and learns some basic training. Around 12 months old, the dog moves in with a trainer – John or Sue and spends the next 8-months living in their homes as a pet while it’s being trained. After about 6-months, the trainer will make the selection as to which client would be best suited to that dog. The two are introduced at the client’s home, and at the end of the dog’s training, the trainer will spend another two or three weeks living in a hotel nearby, working closely with the client every day. They will be taught the commands the person needs to know, learn routes, making sure they are safe enough to be left on their own. After four weeks, providing all is well, dog and client are qualified.”
John added, “When I pass the dog over: I am really pleased to give someone a better form of mobility. I still get a buzz seeing clients weaving in and out of people on the street and getting on with their lives. I still see the dog once a year you never loose contact. And I am just a telephone call away if there are teething problems, and if there are bigger problems I will go and see them.”
Trustee Neil Ewart, former Chairman of Seeing Dogs and former manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Breeding Centre said, “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 apply to both organisations if possible.”
COULD YOU HELP?
It costs around £20,000 to purchase a puppy and care for it through the first two years of its life with puppy rearing, training, food and veterinary care. The charity relies on the generosity of the public, fund raising and legacies to survive. It welcomes donations and help with fund raising. Please visit: http://seeingdogs.org.uk/
NEXT MONDAY – More on The Seeing Dog Alliance, and we’ll meet some adorable puppies just starting out on their journey, and from some of the recipients of a Seeing Dog.