When a puppy is born, they’re completely blind. With their eyes firmly closed, they rely on their other senses and their mum’s guidance to find their way. It will be about a month before their sight develops enough to see something and walk towards it. It’s amazing to think that two years down the line, they could become the eyes for another person too…
That’s what happens to each one of our puppies born at the Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre.
After spending their first six weeks with their mum and siblings in a volunteer’s home, our tiny pups move on to live with their puppy walker. Our puppy walkers are our amazing volunteers who look after our puppies in the crucial first 14 months. During this time they’ll learn all their basic obedience skills. They’ll also go on to master negotiating flights of stairs, busy shopping areas and transport. One of the most important tasks is to ensure the puppy is well socialised, so it’s vital they become comfortable around other people and dogs.
It costs Guide Dogs around £50,000 to support each guide dog from birth to retirement. £29,000 of this is spent on the specialised training they require. At 14 months, it’s time for Guide Dog Training School. A professional guide dog trainer will introduce the puppy to a special brown training harness and guiding skills such as dealing with kerbs and avoiding obstacles. Between 17 and 20 months old, a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor will start to pull all the puppy’s training together, so they learn to use guiding skills in everyday situations. They’ll also begin the matching process with a person with sight loss.
To match a puppy takes a lot of time and consideration. Many different factors are considered, such as personality, size, walking pace and lifestyle. Once the match is made the pair will meet for the first time and begin training as a partnership.
Olivia and Lucy’s story
This is the story of sponsored puppy, Olivia, who has recently qualified with 22 year-old college student, Lucy. At the tender age of 17, Lucy developed a neurological condition. Pressure on her brain crushed her optic nerves, meaning Lucy went blind in just three weeks. Every hour, another person in the UK goes blind. When someone loses their sight, we’re here to make sure they don’t lose their freedom as well. Lucy had big plans for the future and dreams of University that she never thought would be possible until she met Olivia…
What prompted you to apply for a guide dog?
I applied in 2012, two years after losing my sight. I was getting fed up with using a long cane and having to hit an object to know it was there. I got increasingly frustrated going anywhere so got into the habit of being guided by a friend or family member, instead of going out on my own. I wanted to look at my other options.
How did you feel while you were waiting to get a guide dog?
I was very impatient. I was waiting to grasp my independence back and I think anybody would be impatient about that.
And what was it like when you first found out you were getting Olivia?
I was emotional. When I got the phone call that I was matched, I started crying and was so overjoyed, the feeling is incredible. It’s like counting down until Christmas.
When you met Olivia for the first time, what emotions were you feeling that day?
I had built this day up so I didn’t want it to go wrong. The first thing she did was a headstand on my feet, then rolled on her back so I could tickle her tummy. There was no denying she was my match!
What differences has Olivia made to your life?
She’s given me my independence and confidence back. She’s given me complete freedom to go wherever I want to go. Olivia’s also made me a happier person, she knows when I’m having a bad day and gives me a cuddle — she makes me realise how lucky I am. Being blind puts barriers in your way, but Olivia helped knock a few of them down.
How do people in your local community react to you and Olivia?
Most people knew me as the young blind lady before I had Olivia… Now most people know me by name… Well, they know Olivia by name, and Lucy is her owner. We are the two blondes who always have a smile on our faces!
How would you describe the bond you have with Olivia?
It’s almost indescribable. The bond I have with her is so natural; she’s my eyes and an extension of me. I feel lost without her and couldn’t imagine her not being by my side. I love her so much and I’m so grateful for everything she has given to me. She’s not only my guide dog, she’s my best friend.
If someone was thinking about sponsoring a puppy, what would you tell them about the impact their money could make?
I’d tell them that having a guide dog changed my life. My independence was taken away from me and I felt like I wasn’t treated like everybody else my age. Olivia has given me my life back, she pushes me forward and is always there wagging her tail to cheer me up. She makes my life so much easier and it’s all down to people donating money and sponsoring her. I couldn’t be more grateful to receive Olivia, she’s given me my love of life back.
For more information go to: guidedogs.org.uk