Here’s a little about how we train Seeing Dogs and how this might differ from the approach taken by other organisations.
Large guide dog programmes, due to the scale of their operation have a number specialist teams that deal with each stage of a dog’s training. Dogs will be bred at a breeding centre, will then be taken to puppy raisers, they will then return to a central dog supply unit or team for foundation training. They are then passed on to a local team for their advanced training and subsequently are trained with their future user. It is a large complex process.
The Seeing Dogs Alliance is a smaller programme, and we have the luxury that our instructors will oversee the development of our dogs from puppyhood right through to the time they train with their future partner. We are fortunate in having attracted three excellent (ex GDBA) Guide Dog Mobility Instructors. They have an extraordinary range of experience in the guide dog industry but also have demonstrated a much broader interest in the training of dogs in other fields. We have sought those instructors who have a strong reputation with visually impaired people for the quality of their training and support.
Seeing dog puppies leave their mothers at around eight weeks. We want to maximise their opportunities for socialisation and exposure to new experiences. We want our dogs to be confident and robust working dogs in our noisy and busy modern world. Early development means they take the modern world in their stride when someone literally puts their lives in their paws. It is an extraordinary and unique level of trust.
The puppy will live in a family home for the first year of its life. Its development and progress is closely monitored by its future instructor. Many of our instructors run classes for dogs and seeing dog puppies attend these often completing their good citizen certification. This means the young dog receives a very sound foundation but also the instructor becomes familiar with the young dog and can tweak its training to ensure it is ready for its future job. We have one of our instructors who is currently raising a puppy for The Seeing Dogs Alliance who we expect go on to be one of our working dogs.
The young dog will start its formal guide training at twelve months of age. This training will be structured around the dog’s needs as there is no need to divide it in to a ‘dog supply’ and ‘advanced’ phase. The dog has one instructor and will live with their instructor during training. This means their experience is consistent and the dog isn’t stressed by being moved between homes and people.
The final step in a dog’s journey to becoming a Seeing Dog is when it is matched with a visually impaired person. The dog is carefully matched so that its speed, energy level etc fits in with the needs of the person it will guide. The partnership then receives training, usually in the area where the visually impaired person lives. This includes learning a number of key routes but also in the skills of how to care for and maintain the work of the dog. The training includes how to introduce the dog to new areas and tasks and how to adapt the work so that the dog is able to offer the best support possible.
We strongly believe that a Seeing Dog should support the life the visually impaired person wants to live. This is why careful matching and training to meet the needs of people is essential. Our instructors are able to do this because they have known, and developed the dogs they are training from just a few weeks old. They may have even hand picked them from their original litters. They know who will need a dog up to two years in advance so may have someone in mind while developing and training a specific dog.
As an organisation we have three core principles:
- A seeing dog should be trained to support the life the client wishes to live. We do not insist on restrictive criteria about who can have a dog. For some people a dog that can guide for a few minutes makes all the difference between being independent and not. For others a higher energy or more challenging dog is appropriate. We can get this right because we know the dogs we have and the people we work with.
- Every dog we train can guide a totally blind person. All dogs are tested by their trainers in blindfold. If an instructor doesn’t trust a dog, then they will not expect a visually impaired person to trust it. If you have some useful vision and need one of our dogs be assured you are not receiving a dog that failed the blind fold test.
- When a dog is due to retire, we commit to ensuring a new dog is ready to take up its harness. We do not believe it is acceptable for someone to be without a seeing dog for a long period, of possibly years. Continuity of service is a basic right! We will do all we can within our resources to ensure there is minimum gap in support when a dog retires.