By Charlotte Mellor
On the 2nd June 2016 we very luckily managed to secure a place on the Guide Dog Experience Day, hosted by Guide Dogs for the Blind and Blind Children UK. We had attended a similar event in 2014 and I was very keen to see how Scarlett would respond to the lovely labs once again!
The Guide Dog Experience Day gave myself and my two children, Scarlett and Sonny plenty of opportunity to learn all about what Guide Dogs do! From grooming to feeding, the attentive staff were wonderful in teaching parents carers and the kiddies all about what it take to becomes a Guide Dog.
Guide dogs are assistance dogs trained to lead blind and visually impaired people around obstacles. Guide dogs have been helping blind and visually impaired people get around for 80 years. You have to apply for a Guide Dog, if your application is successful then the applicant and the dog will have to under-go training too work with one another.
The human half of the guide dog team does the directing, based upon skills acquired through previous mobility training. The handler acts as the navigator, who must know how to get from one place to another, and the dog is the ‘driving force’, who gets them there safely.
Normally children over the age of 16 can apply for a Guide Dog but there has been an increase in the number of children under the age of 16 who are assigned a dog. There is no upper age limit for people who can apply for a dog. Dual purpose dogs are specifically trained to meet the needs of people who have additional disabilities on top of a sight problem.
Assigning dogs to children under the age of 16 began in a pilot scheme in 2006. If this happens the day-to-day responsibility falls to the guide dog owner, however whilst the young person is under the age of 16, the parent or guardian is legally responsible for the dog. Guide dogs can be taken to places of work, educational institutions, into restaurants and public places and on to public and private transportation.
Matching the correct dog with the correct owner takes skill and experience. The owner’s length of stride, height and lifestyle all contribute to the type of guide dog they will be matched with.
Guide Dogs work for approximately 10 years and it cost £55,000 from start to finish to train them.
The segment of the day I was most looking forward to was when myself and the children got a real life hands on experience of being guided by a dog through an obstacle course. Sonny, who is four years old loved this part of the day and it really seemed to click in his head how very special these lovely dogs are and how clever!
When Scarlett attended her first Guide Dog Experience Day in 2014, she was in whirlwind mode, literally unable to sit down! One of the puppy walkers could recall Scarlett from that day and said “Oh yes I remember a Scarlett, but she just walked around for the whole event”, that’s my girl! This time Scarlett was able to be much more attentive and sat listening to the talks, she also explored the toys, food bowls and accessories with her hands. She had a good go at grooming the dogs and was more than happy to stroke and pat the puppies.
Scarlett has always had a real reluctance to hold anything for an extended amount of time, a lot of effort and time has gone into getting her to hold her cane and still she is adverse to cutlery. So for Scarlett to hold a harness would be a big step for her!
Much to my delight and with a bit of support from the Blind Children UK staff Scarlett did allow herself to be guided along the course by the dog and giggled in delight when he pulled her at any speed. It was brilliant to see how far she had come in 2 years, from a complete unwillingness to even sit down and there she was my little girl putting her trust into a Guide Dog and absolutely loving it!
The day for myself and my family was a massive success, got to meet some lovely children and their families and even caught up with some old faces! The Blind Children UK staff are always massively helpful when we attend events, as a single parent to two small children and with one being a blind juggernaut who is not a fan of sitting still it can be quite a handful, but the staff and volunteers always go that extra mile to make us feel properly supported and to save me from break down! So thank you to Guide Dogs for the Blind and to Blind Children UK for a fabulous day out, it really made our half term! Visit www.guidedogs.org.uk to find out more, and check out our Mobility Support Section to learn more about mobility training in general.