Guide Dogs Puppy Raiser: The lowdown on a paw-some role
More than two million people are living with sight loss in the UK, with a new person losing their sight every six minutes. For many of these individuals, being in a guide dog partnership can be life-changing – allowing them a newfound sense of confidence, freedom and independence.
Virgin Red charity partner Guide Dogs plays a pivotal role in transforming the lives of blind or partially sighted adults and children, and their friends and families, too. The creation of guide dog partnerships is one of the key ways in which the charity helps vision impaired people around the UK, who may otherwise rarely leave home alone.
As guide dog owner Scott says: “The first day Milo and I went out together, it was like the weight of the world had just lifted off my shoulders [...] it is the best feeling.”
To get specially bred pups up to the standard of official guide dogs, Guide Dogs relies on an extensive training programme – including a dedicated community of volunteer Puppy Raisers who ensure puppies are socialised and trained before entering adult guide dog training or ‘big school’.
As a Puppy Raiser, you’ll get to care for a precious guide dog puppy – all expenses paid – for the first year to 16 months of its life, helping to socialise him or her and provide plenty of cuddles and a loving home.
“Our Puppy Raisers have a hugely rewarding role playing a part in a puppy’s development,” Tim Stafford, director of canine affairs for Guide Dogs tells Virgin Red. “Ultimately, they’re also helping to make an enormous difference to someone living with sight loss.”
As a member of Virgin Red, you can donate 1,000 points or more to Guide Dogs. Guide Dogs relies solely on donations, so your support – funding everything from training toys to puppy classes – can make a direct difference to the charity’s vital work.
Here’s a closer look at what being a volunteer Puppy Raiser with Guide Dogs involves and how it changes lives – as told by Tim Stafford:
"As a charity, Guide Dogs breeds around 1,200 of our own puppies a year, who live with a volunteer Puppy Raiser from when they’re 7-8 weeks old for a period of around a year to 16 months. To become a Puppy Raiser, you need to be at least 18 years old, with a loving home, secure outdoor space and enough spare time to invest in raising a young Labrador, Golden Retriever or most commonly a cross between the two. We also have German Shepherds and other cross breeds, such as poodle x Labradors (Labradoodle).
The kind of puppies we train have particular qualities, too. Guide dogs need to be intelligent, calm and confident; friendly but not easily distracted, and eager to learn. Unfazed by new situations, they’re good at making decisions to keep their owner safe. Our breeding programme aims to get the nature bit right, then it’s down to nurture!
Our Puppy Raisers play a vital role in training and socialising these pups and introducing them to new experiences. To be able to do this, each volunteer has access to our world-class training programme, Puppy Raising for Excellent Partnerships (PREP), as well as a dedicated Guide Dogs advisor.
Puppy Raisers are involved in the day-to-day care of the puppy, including feeding, grooming and general home care. They’re also responsible for socialising their puppies as they introduce them to a variety of different settings – for example, shops, the office or the park, always seeking to provide positive experiences that encourage the puppy to grow in confidence.
'Our current puppy Glen is a yellow labradoodle and he’s very cute!' says Nimmi, a Guide Dogs Puppy Raiser from Glasgow. 'He’s a lovely, calm, good natured boy and he loves cuddles. It’s very easy to completely fall in love with him – and we have!'
Our Puppy Raisers also teach their puppies to be comfortable alone for a short time, gradually building up from a few minutes to a few hours. All of this training is supported via the PREP programme, with online modules that cover everything from food manners to greeting new visitors and settling in new environments.
In addition, Puppy Raisers are invited to attend monthly puppy classes in their local area, in order to share experiences and tips on training techniques. They also fill out a series of short questionnaires to document their puppy’s development. Guide Dogs pays for any volunteer expenses, including vet costs, food and other training or wellbeing equipment.
When they reach between 14-16 months of age, our puppies leave their Puppy Raisers and move in with a volunteer fosterer near one of our training centres. From then on, they spend evenings and weekends in a family home, whilst coming to the training centre every day for guide dog lessons – much like a child going to school each day.
This six-month training process involves teaching the young dogs 37 different behaviours (for example, avoiding obstacles, stopping at kerbs and finding objects) to help guide their human partner. They’re taught via positive reinforcement; for example, by using a clicker and rewarding with food from the dog’s daily feed or play with toys. Within this period, the dog will be also introduced to wearing their ‘guide dog uniform’ (a harness), as they learn how to guide a person around obstacles, across roads and up and down stairs.
The last three weeks of the dogs’ formal training involves being matched with their new owners. Guide dog mobility specialists always get to know dogs as individuals and match them to their human partner owner based on lots of different elements that need to be considered to create a perfect partnership.
For example, a guide dog that has lots of energy and is unfazed by travelling on the noisy London Underground would suit someone who commutes to work in the city. Meanwhile, a laidback guide dog with a steady walking pace might suit someone older who has a less demanding schedule.
The careful thought we give each match sets each partnership up for success. We aim to create around 800 partnerships a year and in most cases, human partners will have many wonderful years together with their guide dogs; they’re part of the family. As Stacey, owner of guide dog Toffee, says: 'He’s not just my eyes. He’s my best friend and my soulmate.'"
Guide Dogs is currently looking for more Puppy Raisers to help raise future life-changers, so they’d love to hear from anyone who might be interested. You can find out more on the Guide Dogs website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also support the work of Guide Dogs by donating your points via Virgin Red.