Leading the way

VIDEO GUIDE dogs for the blind are being trained in Ipswich for the first time. As the valuable scheme prepares to officially launch tomorrow , features editor TRACEY SPARLING met the new recruits who will soon be a man - or woman's - best friend.

By Tracey Sparling

GUIDE dogs for the blind are being trained in Ipswich for the first time. As the valuable scheme prepares to officially launch tomorrow, features editor TRACEY SPARLING met the new recruits who will soon be a man - or woman's - best friend.

ONE boisterous dog careers past the tiny black puppy sitting on the lawn, hotly followed by another.

Then it's third time unlucky for little Iris, as the next dog bowls her right over.

When they are not scampering across the grass letting off steam, these dogs are the trailblazers of a new training scheme to help blind people across our region.

Each pup is learning skills which will change someone's life. Eight-week-old Iris will start training in a few months' time.

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They are being trained under the supervision of a new Ipswich branch of Guide Dogs for the Blind which opens tomorrow, and the charity's Andy Gatenby said it's great news for Suffolk.

As the only full-time mobility instructor in Ipswich, he works as part of a team of five across Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire training 35 to 40 dogs a year. He now aims to train at least six dogs a year in Ipswich, for blind people in the east of England.

The branch doesn't have a base but hires facilities when necessary. It recently held Ipswich's first residential course for new owners of guide dogs, at the Holiday Inn in London Road.

He said: “I've just supplied two men in Ipswich with their first dogs, and there are 20 or so people on the waiting list. Some are waiting because they are waiting for a special type of dog, and it can be a complicated process matching the person to the dog.”

It costs £35,000 to put each dog through training, vets bills and food, and every penny comes from public donations and fundraising.

The charity breeds its own puppies and a letter of the alphabet is assigned to each month, so for example, dogs born in May like Iris have names beginning with 'I'.

The willingness of Labradors, and the intelligence of Golden Retrievers means they work best as guide dogs, plus crosses between those breeds.

Andy said: “Our success rate was too low so we started breeding our own dogs, and 20 per cent do still get rejected as unsuitable. It's not until they are 17-18 months old that we can confidently match them to a person.”

Once a potential owner has been selected, Andy also teaches that person how to work with a guide dog.

He's trained 30 dogs and owners over the past six years and said: “We have to see an aptitude to be trained, in the owner, so not everybody is suitable. As well as the freedom and independence a dog brings, the owners get a sense of achievement from learning new skills.”

Guide dogs are trained mainly to help their owner avoid obstacles in their path, and stop at the kerbside.

Some owners use GPS systems as well as a dog, to know exactly where they are at any given time - and of course dogs cannot plan the best route to take.

Andy said: “We basically want to expose the dogs to whatever they might face in future. That might mean taking them to London and on the Tube, if their potential owner needs to do that journey for example. We encourage the dog to take more and more responsibility. I make sure they enjoy it, by including some play and lots of praise although we don't give food as treats.

“Ipswich is a good place to train dogs because it has such a variety of environments, from the Waterfront to the town centre shops.”

He re-visits owners at least once a year, and they can phone Guide Dogs for the Blind for help and extra training at any time. Andy said: “They might have moved home or work, and need to train on new routes, they might have a problem with the dog's behaviour or a cat might have just jumped out of a hedge and landed on the dog - anything can happen!”

He used to work as a consultant in the voluntary sector, working with architects and local councils to improve the environment for disabled people. He said the current trend for 'shared space' developments - like Ipswich's one in the Alderman Road area - where the boundaries between pedestrian and traffic space are removed, raises many problems for blind and partially sighted people.

Andy said: “Removing the kerbs is a big problem because they are one of the key cues a guide dog takes. They are also points of reference for people using a white stick. It's a big issue at the moment, especially in urban environments like shopping precincts.”

His work is backed up by a small army of volunteer puppy walkers and 'dog boarders'.

Branch organiser Libby Spurling runs a 'bed & breakfast for dogs', when they live in her home during the last three months of their training.

She said: “It's important for the dogs to have a normal home life in the evenings and at weekends when they not at 'dog school' with Andy. It means they learn to be very social.”

Libby, of The Driftway, Ipswich, has been a 'boarder' for a year now and has watched two dogs graduate into guide dogs. Para qualified in February, Preston has just gone, and she hopes to have a new dog in September.

Libby said: “It can be hard when they leave, to go to their new homes. I still miss Para - I nearly went out and bought a dog the next day after he left - and my 11-year-old son misses Preston because he was such a fun dog to play in the garden with.

“I am resisting the temptation, even though my friend has just got a litter of black Labrador puppies!

“But I work three days a week so it wouldn't work to leave a dog at home. Andy picks up the trainee guide dogs in the morning, so I think we get the best of the dogs - we get to spoil them and enjoy walking them.”

She added: “Everyone loves a guide dog puppy, especially children who are watching Blue Peter and their guide dog puppy Magic at the moment.”

You can meet the dogs and their keepers, at the new Ipswich branch of Guide Dogs for the Blind tomorrow. It launches with an information and fun day at St Johns Church Hall in Cauldwell Hall Road from 10am to 4pm.

Blue Peter's puppy Magic is currently training to be a guide dog. She has suddenly developed a love of dirt and muck. Her owner said when she's out on her runs, she can't resist diving into the nearest puddle (the muddier the better) or rolling in something smelly.

There are only about 5,000 pairs of dogs and owners across the country. Many blind people don't have guide dogs, because some don't like dogs, some don't need to be out and about.

As Andy, Libby, and other volunteers walk the trainees around Ipswich, they are frequently stopped and asked questions about guide dogs.

But does it cause a problem if you approach a guide dog?

Andy said: “If the dog has a brown leather harness on, then I'm training it and I'm happy to talk to anybody about it.

“But if it's in a white harness it's a working dog and people do need to ask before making any contact, including eye contact with the dog. They are very sociable animals and they will respond, which might cause a problem for the owner.

“If the owner has laid the harness handle down on the dog's back, then it's appropriate to ask the owner. If they say 'no' it's often for a good reason, like they may be learning a new route. The owner may have laid the handle down because they need help to cross the road.”

Guide dogs don't decide when to cross the road, as they don't understand traffic and what indicators mean. Instead they stop at the kerbside, so the owner can listen out for traffic and decide when it's safe to cross.

If a driver stops to let a blind person cross the road, they might be being kind but their engine idling could dangerously disguise the sound of other cars.

TIM Pennick has only had his dog William since September, but they have already bonded as a team.

Tim, 46, from Martlesham works as a technical research consultant at the nearby BT labs, and it's on the walk to and from work when William's help is invaluable.

He said: “He doesn't have much of a guide dog role around the house, he's a pet at home, but when I strap his harness on his job begins.

“He gives me the independence to walk to work and back in a relaxed, fast way, rather than getting too stressed on the journey before I start work. Once we get to the office he stretches out on the floor next to me, and snoozes all day!”

Once home again, William turns back into a pet for Tim, his wife and their five-year-old son.

Tim went blind at the age of two, due to a condition inherited from his mother who is also blind.

He said: “It is massively frustrating sometimes, but having sight is not something I remember as I was too young.”

Four-year-old William is actually the fifth German Shepherd guide dog which Tim has had.

He said times had changed since he got his first dog in 1979: “It used to be completely different and things have changed a lot over the past ten years.

“They never used to introduce you to the dog, but when William came to us, we had him for a day to check we got on all right, and we both went through the training.”