FEATURE: Volunteers taking the lead to help guide dogs charity
We’re all familiar with the sight of a guide dog trotting alongside its owner, steering them calmly through crowds and away from hazards.
Apart from the distinctive harness they look like any other family pet, but they are so much more.
And behind every guide dog helping someone with severe vision loss is a vital group of people who give their time for free.
Around 500 volunteers support the Guide Dogs charity in the eastern region in ways that include puppy walking, fundraising, dog boarding and driving. The UK total is 14,000.
“All the roles are equally important,” said Christian Cornforth, volunteer consultant for Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
“At the moment in the Bury area we particularly need drivers and fundraisers.
“Our drivers do things like taking dogs and their owners to vet’s appointments, or to a training facility to be assessed.
“They might also help by transporting equipment to a fundraising branch.”
Geraldine McKeag has first hand experience of the urgent need for volunteer drivers in parts of Suffolk.
When her guide dog Quinta needed to go to the Animal Health Trust near Newmarket for a scan the nearest driver to take them was in Peterborough.
Swimming coach Geraldine, from Bury, teamed up with Quinta just over a year ago.
The former nurse has a type of genetic glaucoma that means her sight continues to deteriorate despite treatment and surgery.
“When it got to the point where I fell down some steps, and walked into a lamp post and nearly knocked myself out, I realised I needed help,” she said.
“I approached Guide Dogs in early 2015 and was surprised how quickly I was matched with a dog.
“That summer I spent two weeks on a training course learning to work with her.”
At the moment Geraldine has some central sight, but no peripheral vision.
“People often think everyone with a guide dog is completely blind, but most have some vision, although it’s very restricted.”
Geraldine’s worsening sight means she can no longer drive, which forced her to give up her job looking after child cancer patients.
“When I was first registered as severely sight-impaired I had to stop work as a paediatric oncology nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
“But I had to do something to keep myself ticking over, and the lady who was teaching my children to swim thought I would make a good swimming teacher.”
Now she is a qualified swimming coach and has a business called Water Bugs specialising in teaching the very young, from babies to age five.
She also coaches junior triathletes, and pupils at St Edmund’s School in Bury, as a volunteer.
Guide dogs can never be treated in the same way as an ordinary pet because of the need to maintain discipline.
But Quinta is very much part of the family for Geraldine, husband Tom and daughters Emma, 17, and Catherine, 14.
“She gets loads of love and attention, but guide dogs can’t be pets.
“Free running has to be restricted, because if I let her off the lead every time we went out she wouldn’t want to work.
“A guide dog is very much a working dog. But she never ceases to amaze me.
“We will be walking along, and she will take me round something, and I’ll think, wow!”
Geraldine has also helped arrange a course for guide runners, so that people with vision loss can go out running.
“We now have 14 guide runners in Bury and hope to get people out and running in the new year,” she said.
Volunteer roles with Guide Dogs start with puppy walkers.
“That’s where it all begins, getting the dog familiarised with going out, being sociable, and coping with town centres,” said Christian.
“There is lots of training involved as well. They keep the dog for a year or more.
“We find our puppy walkers do it for years and years, because they love it so much.
“It’s a pivotal role. There’s a lot of commitment. It really changes your life and you have to be flexible and adaptable.
“Dog training has to be 100 percent right, you have to be quite discplined about it.”
The dogs are then placed with advanced boarders, who look after them for 10 weeks while they go through the later stages of their training.
They support the training by reinforcing the commands, like feeding when a whistle is blown three times, and making sure dogs don’t get into any bad habits in the home.
Finally comes a period of intense training after which a decision is made whether they will qualify as a guide dog or not.
Then each dog is matched with a potential owner and they go on a training course together to learn how to work as a team.
Guide dogs don’t usually want huge amounts of exercise because their work is quite tiring.
But sometimes owners are unable to give their dog the runs it needs, and have no family to do it for them, so that is another job taken on by volunteers.
The average cost of a guide dog’s working life is £50,000, and voluntary helpers are also hugely important when it comes to fundraising.
“This is one of the big ones ... it’s key to what we do,” said Christian.
“People either fundraise as a group, through individual efforts like running a marathon, by doing collections, or organising events.”
Some of the charity’s volunteers take on a completely different role, with its sighted guiding service called My Guides.
They are teamed with someone who is visually-impaired and needs help to get out and about, or take part in an activity.
“It could mean helping them to get the confidence to go into town, or for a walk, or maybe go to the gym for some exercise,” said Christian.
“The clients are people who don’t have a guide dog, or maybe their dog has retired and they’re waiting to be matched with another one.
“They might only need help for four or five months but during that time it’s a regular commitment.”
Some people also act as volunteer speakers to spread the word about Guide Dogs by giving talks.
A groundbreaking project by the charity’s Eastern Region will mean new volunteering opportunities.
“We plan to introduce guide dog owners’ forums across the region next year,” said Christian.
“At the moment we only have them in Peterborough, Cambridge, Ipswich and Norwich but we will be looking to widen this out.
“The idea is that the owners run the forums themselves, with the help of volunteers. We will be looking for a coordinator and an assistant in each area.”
The Guide Dogs charity – full name The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association – started in 1931 from very modest beginnings.
Two dog breeders, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, started training German Shepherds in a lock-up garage in Merseyside.
Labradors, retrievers, and crosses between the two, are now by far the most popular breeds used.
The charity is now the world’s largest breeder and trainer of working dogs, with its own breeding centre in Leamington Spa.
So far it has helped 29,000 people nationwide, and is world-renowned for its expertise. Almost 5,000 dogs are currently working in the UK.
“Clients own their guide dog – there is a 50p transaction to make it official,” said Christian.
“But as a charity we look after the dog, and supply food and vet care.
“Owners become very attached to their dogs. They can be like their best friend ... the one thing they can really rely on day in day out.”
Dogs normally retire at around the age of 10, when they might stay with their owner as a pet, or go back to a puppy walker.
But there is never a shortage of people wanting to give them a loving retirement home.
To find out how you can help Guide Dogs call Christian Cornforth on 0345 143 0223.