WORK EXPERIENCE: Our reporter is guided by man's best friend
6:02pm Friday 25th October 2013 in News
Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Lisa Macdonald hands control of "Lucas" to a blindfolded Ruth (1617888)
You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but when it comes to guide dogs its a completely different tale as RUTH MANSFIELD finds out.
THEY say a dog is a man’s best friend.
And as I walked around Newport city centre blindfolded, relying on 18-month-old Lucas to lead the way, I really hoped that theory wasn’t going to let me down.
This was my work experience challenge for the morning – to work alongside Guide Dog’s mobility instructor Lisa Macdonald as she trained up Labrador Lucas and 18-month-old flatcoat and golden retriever cross Victor to become fully fledged guide dogs.
Although I had grown up with a dog myself – a golden labrador – I was soon to discover that this was going to be quite a different experience from my memories of being a young dog owner.
For a start, the chances of my childhood pet Buster ever becoming a guide dog were about as likely as him ever getting over his fear of cats, chickens, other dogs...you get the picture.
And just in case you don’t – the fact that my parents hired a dog trainer who then went AWOL after a few sessions demonstrates, I think, that Buster was very much a dog who enjoyed a dog’s life.
But meeting up with Lisa, who has worked for Guide Dogs for six years, and the first dog Victor, it was a very different story.
Although Victor was happy to give me a few licks and shake his paw with me at the start of the meeting in the Kingsway Centre, as soon as the leads went on he knew it was time for business.
To ease me into the session, I followed Lisa as she walked Victor around Newport city centre using basic commands including “forward”, “left”, “right” and “wait”.
Victor, along with Lucas, is nearing the end of his training with Lisa and should be ready to be placed with a new owner around Christmas time, so this was a dog who knew his stuff.
Guiding Lisa round, he easily took on any task that came in front of him including walking around people, negotiating small gaps, and stopping when he came to a road.
In fact the only thing that did deter him, for a couple of seconds, was the smell of a freshly baked pasty resting on a stall in the shopping centre - but who wouldn’t be distracted for a short while?
Even several pigeons on the street didn’t cause him to lose focus on his job, even if he did look a little bit tempted.
Along the walk, Lisa explained how the guide dogs are bred and are mostly based at the national breeding centre in Warwickshire.
The puppies then stay in homes until they are about eight-weeks-old when they then stay with volunteers up until the age of 12 to 14 months.
It is at this point they then enrol in one of four training schools which are based in Edinburgh, Manchester, Essex and Warwickshire where they stay for about 16 weeks learning the basic skills.
They are then passed onto someone such as Lisa whose job it is to develop their training over a 10 week period.
This also includes assessing the dog’s character to see what kind of owner it would be suited to and indeed whether life as a guide dog is suitable at all.
Lisa will train up a couple of dogs at a time who will live with volunteers in between their training sessions.
So after the walk round the block with Victor, which included negotiating some stairs and a lift, it was time to meet Lucas who was about to become my temporary guide dog.
In terms of character Lucas, I was told, is a “chilled out” dog suitable to walk round with an owner who enjoys activities such as shopping and sitting in a cafe – my kind of dog.
So although I was nervous as I put on the blindfold to head out into the city centre, I knew that I was in safe hands – or paws.
Despite the numerous times I have walked through the city centre, it was surprising how quickly I lost my bearings and although I had total faith in Lucas it did test my nerves a bit every time I heard the sound of a car or felt a sudden dip in the pavement.
If anything it made me realise how much reliance is put on the dog to guide a person safely through an area.
As I gave my basic commands, Lucas took me through the precinct area, crossed me over the road and took me up the steps in a store, even being polite enough to slow down for me when needed.
Taking off the blindfold at the end , it did feel a bit strange. While there was the relief of knowing I’d survived the challenge there was also the thought that for Lucas’ next owner there will be no blindfold to take off. The reliance on Lucas will be a permanent thing.
This is why, as Lisa explains, owners are given around four weeks training to adapt to their new guide dog with Lisa then revisiting the new owner on set occasions to ensure everything is as it should be and to resolve any issues.
We made one of these visits during the morning, meeting up with Maria Thatcher, 76, of Castleton, who has had guide dog Tasha for six months.
The two-year-old golden labrador, who was trained by Lisa, is Mrs Thatcher’s second guide dog after her previous guide dog retired.
Meeting at the Newport Centre I discovered Mrs Thatcher, who is partially sighted and deaf, quite often visits the centre for a gym visit or for a swim while Tasha waits at her side.
As part of the aftercare service, I along with Lisa walked behind Mrs Thatcher as she made her way through the city centre with Tasha.
As she strode through the city centre with her trusty sidekick, it was then I realised just how slow I had been walking when I attempted the blindfold test.
There was no stopping this duo as they made their way through the busy bus station and past the shops before arriving at a cafe for a well-earned drink.
“I couldn’t be without her,” said Mrs Thatcher. The bond between them was obvious and is a very rewarding part of the job for Lisa as she sees her hard work and patience pay off.
“It is a really rewarding job,” she said. “It’s hard when I have to let them go but it’s lovely when I see them with their new owners.”
I can completely agree as I would have been quite happy to have taken Victor, Lucas and Tasha home with me there and then and I’d only been with them for a few walks round the block.
But after seeing Tasha with Mrs Thatcher, I have no doubt that Victor and Lucas will soon be with new owners providing them with the same amount of support and friendship. But I’m also just as sure the new owners will equally adore the dogs and their pretty amazing abilities too.
I think you’d be barking mad not to.
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