Guide Dogs Association

The Guide Dog Training School Redbridge

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Case Study

RedbridgeOn 26 October 2016 I visited the Redbridge Training Centre for guide dogs in north-east London. The centre was established in 1986 by the Guide Dogs Association as the main centre for the intensive training of guide dogs for the south-east of the UK.

During my visit I was privileged to be shown around the kennels, training areas, introduced to trainers and guide dog owners. It was a valuable experience which gave me considerable insight into the value of such an organization and their work.

The Training of Guide Dogs.

RedbridgeAll guide dogs, which are provided to blind people in the UK, are specially bred at Leamington Spa. After a short training period the dogs are distributed to different centres around the country. Redbridge Training Centre is one of many centres in the UK that have dedicated and highly experienced staff for the advanced training of guide dogs. After 16 weeks of training the dogs are then evaluated. If the training has gone well and they meet certain criteria the guide dogs are then passed on to individual dog trainers in the community from where they are further trained and finally allocated to a dog owner. The process of training is rigourous and is very carefully monitored.

The allocation of a fully trained guide dog to a blind person must be tailored to the dog owners needs and circumstances.  For example if the target dog owner has an allergy to dog hair the Guide Dogs Association is able to breed specific dogs that will minimise this problem.  A ‘Labradoodle’ (above), which is a cross between a poodle and a Labrador, is one solution.  The height of the dog owner will also determine the size of the dog which is allocated to them …. and so on.

Summary of the Dog Training Process

The training of guide dogs is split into three levels. As soon as the pups are born they are given an initial 16 week training program, after which they are then distributed to different centres around the country for intensive training. This second phase of training includes specific tasks and modified behaviour programs that are relevant to guiding a blind person. For example, the dog is trained to understand width and distance. These are especially relevant for guiding a blind person away from objects and hazards, such as the edges of platforms, streetlights, cars and so on. On completion of this phase of training each dog is then passed on to a qualified guide dog trainer, whose specific role is to focus on the domestic setting and the likely scenarios which a guide dog needs to understand when looking after and guiding a blind person. Finally the dog is then assessed and allocated to the blind dog owner. The bond that forms between both the dog and the blind person is carefully monitored and assessed over the following weeks before the allocation process is completed.  The Guide Dog Association will continue to monitor and check on the relationship and care of both guide dog and the blind person after the initial allocation process is complete. Annual visits to the guide dog owner by the Association are maintained.

A Meeting with John – A Guide Dog Owner

(All names have been changed for online reading only)

During my visit I was exceptionally lucky to be introduced to and have a long conversation with John, a blind person, and his guide dog, James. This conversation enabled me to understand the challenges of coping with blindness and the immense help that can be achieved from forming a close working relationship with a guide dog.

John is 60 years old. He is married to Sarah, who is also blind. They have two healthy and grown-up daughters who have recently married and live close by in Woodford Green. John and his wife live life to the full. John has completed to London marathons. The house is not especially adapted for coping with the challenges of blindness. Their garage has been converted into a gym which John uses every day to keep fit. Both have worked in full-time jobs in the centre of London for much of their lives. The trip from home to work involves a complicated course along streets, over station bridges, platforms and moving escalators.

John has been blind from birth.  He explained that he has no understanding of colours or knowledge of what the landscape looks like. And this is significant because the allocation of a guide dog to a totally blind person, who has never seen, is very unusual. The allocation of a guide dog is almost always confined to those who have partial sight or have had some experience of actually seeing the outside world in their early life.

John has had four guide dogs and all have been exceptionally intelligent animals. In his own words he explained that they were all very "different characters with different temperaments and abilities". While looking down at James, who is resting at his feet, he mentioned that his second of was especially intelligent and intuitive. He explained that this dog somehow knew his inner thoughts and was able to determine a complicated route along streets with very little prompting. On one particular occasion this dog was tugging at John to go in a different direction when trying to negotiate a change of platform at a station. Despite resisting initially, John gave in and allowed himself to be led. The result was that the dog had guided John to the same objective and place on the station but had very cleverly avoided it difficult  and challenging bridge across during the busy rush-hour. They arrived at their destination much sooner than expected.

John also had a guide dog called Walter. Water was a mischievous guide dog. On several occasions Walter would steal food while ‘working’. On one particular day and while John was heading to work along the platform a mother cried out, "your dog has eaten my daughters sandwich!". John could only apologise but could not confirm or deny what had happened. He was totally oblivious to what Walter had done.

Both dog and John are inseparable. Since John's  recent retirement from the NatWest bank the daily routine of both guide dog and owner includes frequent walks in the park, visits to the local shops for supplies and to friends in the neighbourhood. John explained and showed a number of items in his bag that enable him to know the whereabouts of James at all times. For example James has several different dog collars that make different sounds, – depending on the type of bell  or audio GPS device that is attached. During a walk with the dog John is able to identify if James is close by all away in the distance exploring the local woods. Advances in electronic gadgetry and technology extend beyond their application to identify the location of a guide dog fights owner. John is fluent at using Braille and he showed several pieces of electronic equipment which combines computer technology, GPS and Braille keyboards that make is life so much more easier than when he was very young. James also demonstrates, as John explained, that he showed particular preferences towards certain television programmes and computer displays.

While John's wife has always resisted the offer of a guide dog, John willingly admitted that it has changed his life considerably for the better. Guide dogs have enabled him to go to work, train for the London Marathon, meet up with friends and enjoy life that is as normal as possible. From John's account of his experience of living with a guide dog he firmly believed that his guide dogs lived a happy, contented and exceptionally valuable lives.