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Puppy walkers needed to help train guide dogs

Guide dogs can be a lifeline to people who are blind or partially sighted, but each guide dog has to be trained for two years before it can begin work. Grace Witherden spoke to Cllr Simon Werner and a puppy walker about the work that goes in to training the dogs.

Zachary, a six-month old puppy, is described by his trainer as friendly, intelligent and a ‘little naughty’.

But in just under two years’ time, the Labrador crossed with a golden retriever will be someone’s lifeline.

“Guide dogs give people the confidence to leave their house, they are companions,” says Pinkneys Green councillor Simon Werner, whose day job is a volunteering consultant at the regional branch of Guide Dogs UK, based in Reading.

Today Simon has invited us to Oaken Grove Park to meet Zachary and Fran Taylor, who has been looking after guide dogs for 14 years.

Puppy walkers, as they are called, will look after the dogs from around six weeks old and will keep them for a year. It is their role to socialise the dog and train them to become responsive.

Fran, who also has two dogs of her own, said: “When my kids grew up and went to uni I wanted to give something back.

“You need to have lots of time and patience, but if you work part time you could bring them in the office so they can get used to it.

“One of the first things we teach them is to go to the toilet on command, so if you’re going in a shop they can go before.”

When asked what makes the cross breed a good candidate for guide dogs, Fran said: “Golden retrievers are a bit stubborn but very sensitive and Labradors are a bit bouncy and often food orientated.

“This cross really seems to bring out the best in both breeds.”

When Zachary is old enough he will be sent to the Leamington Guide Dog Training School to complete his training.

Simon says not all dogs will make the cut, but the ones who don’t could go on to being buddy dogs for young children or police dogs.

This could be for a number of reasons including the dog being distracted by other dogs or a fear of loud noises.

“Each guide dog will cost the charity £55,000, but anyone who needs a guide dog will pay just 50p, so we rely on volunteers and donations,” says Simon.

For puppy walkers like Fran, the charity will cover the cost of vet and food bills.

Each area should have three to four puppy walkers but Simon says Maidenhead had a real shortage of volunteers training dogs.

Simon said: “I don’t know why it is, but I want to change that.”

If you think you could be a puppy walker contact Simon at Simon.Werner@guidedogs.org.uk


Facts

The average career of a guide dog is six to seven years

There are currently eight working guide dogs from the charity in Maidenhead, Windsor and Slough

Across the region (Berkshire, Bucks, Oxford, West Sussex and Surrey) there are 250 working guide dogs

About 42 guide dogs will be trained for the region each year

Guide Dogs charity will breed 1,300 puppies each year

In 2016 it cost the charity £48.9m to run the guide dog service.

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