Irish Guide Dogs: Science helps make the perfect pup match but the human factor is key to success

Roy Keane with assistance dog Fletcher at the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind centre in Cork. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

While every charity relies heavily on the public’s generous donations to fund its services, the Irish Guide Dogs also needs an army of volunteers every year to help with the breeding and raising of its puppies. Susan O’Shea met some of those involved.

There used to be a high degree of chance involved in raising a guide dog from pup to fully trained and ready to go home with a client. Many dogs, for different reasons didn’t make the cut, despite the rigorous training programme.

Tim O’Mahony, general manager of the Irish Guide Dogs, says the adoption of a science-based approach that governs everything from initial client assessment to breeding, puppy raising to training, has led to a huge jump in the amount of canines making the grade as guide dog and a better match for the client.

“We profile the clients so we can see who will need dogs over the next seven months and the dogs coming through training so we can match them appropriately,” he says.

“The match is now very scientific to remove as much chance as possible. If a dog doesn’t make it as a guide dog, or an assistance dog, they will still be utilised as a companion dog, or as an ambassador, or in a fundraising role. We are trying to ensure every dog is utilised.”

Tim says by the charity adopting Lean methodology, waste and inefficiency is kept to an absolute minimum, the client gets the right dog as quickly as possible, and there is transparency and precision at every stage. The service costs €5m a year to run, with 15% of that coming from State funding, so the remainder needs to be raised from the public and corporate sector.

Roy Keane is vital to the organisation, says Tim. “Apart from getting us front page coverage, he helps out at so many different levels. For example earlier in the year he gave a motivational speech to the staff on the role of personal responsibility."

Tim adds: “In fact, what he loves most, especially over the Christmas period, when the place is quiet, is to come in unannounced and walk the kennels. He loves being among the dogs.”

Skye and Yola: ‘Every aspect of our lives has changed for the better’

Skye with her assistance dog Yolo: ‘Right from day one Yolo calmed Skye, gave her something wonderful to focus on that was all hers.‘

Skye has autism, and her mother Karen Jones says since the moment Skye got her assistance dog, amazing things have happened.

“Before Yolo came along, Skye would never speak with anyone. In fact, she never spoke a word until she was three. She was afraid of going anywhere that wasn’t familiar or that had loud noises or lights. And, like most children with autism, she would bolt the instant you let go of her hand.

“‘Bolting’ is a medically recognised behaviour among children with autism. For mums like me, it’s a matter of life and death. But she couldn’t tell me what she was feeling, because she didn’t have a way to explain her fears, her feelings, or her needs to me. Like, if she wanted to go swimming, she couldn’t say, ‘Mam, can we go swimming?’ . She’d just find her togs and head for the pool. This actually happened. She was out the front door and across the very busy road we live on before we even knew what was happening. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. But that’s what daily life was like — constantly terrified for your child’s safety.”

Karen says everything changed with the arrival of Yolo. “Literally every aspect of our lives has changed for the better. I can’t imagine life without Yolo. He’s so, so important to Skye’s development. And to us all as a functioning family.

“Skye and Yolo are physically attached by a strap that’s clipped on to Yolo’s harness and to a belt that Skye wears. So even if she wanted to bolt, she couldn’t. But the real miracle is that she just doesn’t want to bolt anymore.

“Right from day one Yolo calmed Skye. He grounded her. Gave her something wonderful to focus on that was all hers. And I guess the rest of the world she lives in didn’t seem so scary anymore.”

Diane San Martin: Raising Yama was ‘one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my life, ever’

Diane San Martin with 15-week-old puppy Meeko: Puppy-raising is ‘a full-time job but I would suggest anybody to do it, even if just once in their life’. Picture: Larry Cummins

From Italy, Diane says she discovered the volunteer programme when she came to Ireland.

“I always had dogs in my life, so this wasn’t something new for me. I went on the website, saw the different volunteer programmes, and applied. I asked my landlady before applying if I could have a guide dog in the house, and she said ‘go ahead, this is one of the greatest things that you could ever do’. Which was an amazing response, as many landlords don’t want a dog.

“So I sent the application, and they came and assessed the house and the garden, they suggested a fence for the garden. Emer brought me Noah, he was a very strong puppy, for three days, like a trial, to let me understand what it’s like to be a puppy-raiser, ’cause it’s not just like having a dog, it’s totally different.

“I brought him back after the three days and said, yes I want to do this. She showed me how to walk the dog. If you have always had a dog in your life, you think at first what’s different, but then you discover it is such a totally new universe because they are not pets, they need a lot of work.”

Diane raised Yama for nine months. She walked her twice a day, starting with 15-minute walks up to 30/40 minutes, seven days a week, no matter the weather. “We had specific types of exercise to do, depending on the age of the puppy, then we had to take the bus, the taxi, go to the pub, shopping centre, disco. You have a supervisor who comes to your home once a month to check on your work. If you have a problem with your puppy at any stage they are available to speak with you on the phone, or meet, and once a month we have a puppy class here. This is when the supervisor sees all the puppies together and they suggest different exercises to do. I used the e-learning platform, which is so important, because even if you have dealt with dogs before, this is a different level. Basically, it’s a full-time job but I would suggest anybody to do it, even if just once in their life.”

Diane has now finished raising Yama, and tears come to her eyes when I mention his name.

“I am still coping with the separation, I am still very sad. But I will take another dog, that’s how you survive the separation, and of course you know the reason why you are doing this. You know this dog will be a guide dog, or an assistance dog, and that is the main purpose. It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my life, ever.”

Marie Wilkins: ‘These dogs will go to help visually impaired people, kids with autism’

Marie says breeding guide dogs is a ‘lovely experience’.

Marie says she saw an ad on Facebook looking for volunteers for the breeding programme. “I thought that’s something I’d like to do and I was in a position to do it. I collected Hula in October 2015, there was a settling-in period of a couple of months, and then she had the first litter, 10 puppies, pure golden retrievers.”

Marie says there was always great support available. “There was no problem, anything we needed. We had lots of visits, to make sure everything was OK for the brood, the puppies, for us. For the first three weeks, mum does all the work, and it’s when they get to four weeks after they are weaned that the work then starts — you are cleaning and minding. There’s a structure as to what to do with the puppies, how to socialise them. It’s a lovely experience to do it.”

Describing herself as a doggy lover, Marie says she had no qualms about taking on a litter, and the support and help available made it easy.

“I love dogs, I felt it was something I could do, and it was doing some good, because at the end of the day, these dogs will go to help visually impaired people, kids with autism. And you can follow the puppies’ progression with their puppy-raisers through a WhatsApp group and a Facebook page, you have an interest in how they get on.”

Training days

    Martin Falvey, who joined the organisation in 1996, is the guide dog mobility instructor and assistance dog instructor, takes half-trained dogs, finishes their programme, and gets them ready for clients — matching the dog with the client, and then training the client with the dog. He also helps maintain any partnerships out in the community until a dog is retired (at the age of 10). Interestingly, Martin says he was terrified of dogs as a child and his brother persuaded his mother to take in a stray, and eventually he overcame his fear and then discovered a real passion for animals, and dogs in particular. He says patience is key for a trainer, and to be adaptable. “For example, Ultan here is a cheeky monkey so I need to be bubbly but firm with him."Some of my other dogs a more sensitive and need to be handled differently, with a much calmer approach, and be able to read the dog to see what approach works best. "And the same is true of clients, all people are different and you need a different approach if it’s there first dog, or if they have had several dogs before. "There’s no such thing as a perfect dog, so there will always be things you are tweaking.”

Laura O'Connell: ‘We need people who are at home a lot and have the time to give’

Laura O’Connell, breeding co-ordinator, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. Picture: Larry Cummins

“Our breeding regeneration programme is crucial to our sustainable supply of dogs and through its success, we have increased the number of pups to be raised and trained this year and next by almost 50%.

“We currently have 107 dogs on walk [in training], we expect to have 130 next year.”

Laura says the new use of a much more scientific approach is yielding dividends.

“This year we will have trained 32 guide dogs, up from 18 in 2017 and are forecasting 40-45 guide dogs in 2019.”

Nothing is left to chance, with the dogs no longer mating naturally, but through artificial insemination (TCI), which she says is less stressful for the dog and delivers more accurate results.

The dogs in the breeding programme live out in the homes of volunteers, and part of Laura’s responsibility to visit the bitches, and assist at the births. The dogs begin breeding at the age of two, and are retired after four litters or when they reach the age of five, and usually live out the rest of their lives in contentment with their volunteer breeder.

The largest litter to date was 12 pups, and at seven-and-a-half weeks, the pups leave the nest and return to HQ, where they are put through their paces.

“We put them through a little circuit which summarises everything they’ve been exposed to, with a little stairs and ramp, a tunnel, surfaces and objects they haven’t seen, they meet a new handler and we watch how they cope in a new environment.

“That helps us pick a puppy-raiser that best suits them.”

Laura says the organisation is always anxious to recruit breeding volunteers.

“We need people who are at home a lot, and have the time to give when a litter is born, and socialise the pups before they leave the nest.”

Rose O'Keeffe: Wanted: Puppy-raisers and people willing to help board puppies

Puppy in training Miko with Michelle Crowley from MSD and Tim O’Mahony, general manager at Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Rose says for anyone interested in being a puppy-raiser volunteer, there is tremendous support available. “We visit all of our puppy-raisers once a month. They have a puppy class once a month. In the initial stages they get a visit once a week, when they get their puppy first, because those are the toughest couple of weeks, particularly if it’s their first pup.”

Some are regular raisers, others do it just once. “I have one raiser she’s on pup six, she absolutely loves it. There’s a raiser in Dublin on pup 10 or 11. There are other people who do it for a year and decide it was a really good experience but take a break, and there are people who do it and really enjoy it, but decide not to go again.

“But most people who decide not to puppy-raise again will temporary board for us, which means that when our puppy-raisers go on holidays, we would try to board our pups out to other homes rather than put them in kennels. Those people are very valuable as well. For example, if I have a puppy-raiser in Limerick going on holiday it’s great if I have a temporary boarder nearby, I don’t need to bring the pups back up to Cork. We try to avoid having the pups travel long distances. The puppy-raiser can just drop the pup to the temporary boarder.”

Preparation is key to ensure that people will last the course as puppy-raisers.

“At the initial interview and assessment stage, the person is given a very clear picture of the time commitment required and the level of training we expect from them, and before they get their pup the person completes an e-learning module, to prepare them for what’s involved. Then I place the puppy and go through the basics of the next 24 hours as I visit the following day.

“If you land with a puppy, and all this information it’s a bit of an overload, so we do toilet training, feeding, generally settling the puppy in, and then on the next visit we go through things like introducing the jacket, body handling, grooming, and how to establish a routine with a puppy. And with the follow-on visits they are becoming more adept, so it’s things like how do we walk them, because they are different to pets so we walk them on the left-hand side. Even if people have had a lot of experience with pet dogs, this is quite different.”

Patrick Burke, chairman of Irish Guide Dogs, says: “There is always more that must be done so if anyone could give of their time or experience or would like to be a puppy-raiser in 2019 we would be delighted to hear from you.”

Irish Guide Dogs in Numbers

  • 2017: 40 assistance dogs 18 guide dogs
  • 2018: 32 guide dogs 20 assistance dogs
  • 2019: 40 guide dogs 30 plus assistance dogs
  • 2020: 80-plus dogs

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