Kate Calvert reports on the experience of caring for a guidedog puppy

This article was going to run some time next summer, after a full year of puppy walking our trainee guidedog Poppy. But Guide Dogs say they want puppy walkers in London now, and especially in the north postcodes. So this is to describe the experience in case there are others out there who might like to join the Guide Dogs network.
Our initial impetuswas from the children who, desperate for a dog, spotted the idea of puppy walking on TV. We figured that it was only a temporary commitment and applied.

Signing Up
After checked references we were interviewed to make sure that our house was suitable, iewith safe in and outdoor space for a growing dog. Also required wasthat someone would always be around to keep the dog company, and that we were OK around dogs. (The interviewer arrived with a fabulously handsome but extremely bouncy 11-month-old retriever to make absolutely certain.) We were passed as suitable and from application in late January to receipt of puppy took around five months.

Poppy, a little bundle of black fur, was delivered at just six weeksto encourage socialising with humans rather than dogs. Also provided was a zip lock bag with a towel which smelt of her mum, and the advice to leave Classic FM on low. There were leads and collars to grow into, a toy, a folder full ofadvice and contacts, plus an agreement for us to sign that the dog does belong to Guide Dogs,not us. Total cost of breeding and training each dog comes to £27,500 so they don’t want to be losing dogs along the way.

How It Works
All food is paid for by Guide Dogs – you ring, give the dog’s reference number and it’s delivered to the door. There’s a cleaning allowance if you want to claim it, and also paid are all vet bills – very useful when Poppy woke one morning with red eyelids, swollen ears, swollen muzzle and wouldn’t drink. The vet thought she must have been stung by something in the night and she ended up on a drip for 12 hours.
Delivered together with Poppy was a folding cage, and it’s down to the puppy walker to make it cosy. My daughter donated a large bear and we acquired some charity shop soft toys which sat on top of old sheets and towels. You start by feeding the puppy in the cage to build happy associations, and as they get older they retire in there whenever they want a bit of down time.
At night we were told to cover the cage with a blanket, ignore any whines, not get her out earlier than 7am, and eat first to make it clear we were the pack leaders. After a bit of grumbling the first night Poppy was fine with that and,although fixated by food, will wait without complaint until everyone else has eaten and now is required to wait longer and longer in front of her dish of kibbles as we train her in self-control.

The main aim of puppy walking is to get the dog used to everyday life and as well as dealing with the rough and tumble at home, that means taking the dog to all the places they might go when working – trains, buses, tube, cars, noisy pavements, even cinemas and concerts. Though it is not the legal right to take her everywhere that it would be with a fully trained dog, we’ve been careful about what we’ve requested and have never been refused, though if doubtful we ask first. To date she’s travelled long distance by train, been to the dentist, where her naturally chilled disposition meant the sound of equipment was simply cause for a snooze, to borough meetings, public talks, the cinema, into John Lewis and to Waitrose, though the supermarket takes two people – one to do the shopping and the other to ensure that the dog’s interest in the tantalisingly close chilled food doesn’t become too up close and personal. Next step is some improvised opera, figuring that if she joins in, at least the cast will be able to improvise around it.

She happily comes to the pub but despite her early imprinting with human company, what she most enjoys is the company of other dogs so a trip to the Heath excites her so much she is exhausted for the rest of the day.
Ultimately a guide dog is being trained to walk in a straight line so most outings are on a lead, walking briskly without deviating and we too are being gradually trained into always walking her on the left side, and encouraging her to read the pavement for obstacles and ‘moving obstacles’ ie people. Free running is only three or four times a week, and not close to water or playing with a ball so the dog doesn’t get distracted by those options when working.

To make sure the dogs stay safe around blind people, you are also asked not to teach them to give a paw, or to fetch items like the post, because the blind owner won’t then know where the envelopes have gone. We have to keep practising ‘Sit’, ‘Down’, and even ‘Roll’, so Poppy gets into the habit of doing as she is told, though she is much more willing to do exactly as our supervisor requests, so there is clearly a knack there we haven’t quite mastered.

Life with a trainee guide dog
A guide dog is not your dog and there are strict rules about food and furniture. A Labrador who thinks there is the possibility of food is a distracted Labrador so there are no snacks, ever, except for dog kibbles or a kind of homemade chicken liver-based dog biscuit given as rewards. And while most dogsare taken out to go to the loo, this type of stopping would trip up the owner of a working dog. Instead therefore a guide dog is encouraged to go before the walk, and again when safely back home – another trick we haven’t quite mastered with Poppy. And because a guide dog needs to be able to wee or pooh on command (the chosen word is ‘Busy!’) their digestion needs to be totally reliable, which means you can’t vary their diet with leftover household titbits.

As she gets older, life with Poppy gets easier as she learns to just lie – as she is doing while I type this. But particularly the start it is a sort of combination of a baby and a toddler – no brain, and mobile enough to get into all kinds of trouble. The trick seems to be to provide distraction and our kitchen now always features a plastic milk carton to chase and chew, and a couple of cardboard boxes to climb into, dig and dismember.

Hugs are definitely encouraged – guide dogs are bred to like company and touch – but she is absolutely not to get on to the furniture so cuddles mean strokes or sitting on the floor with her. If the dog comes upstairs, that should only be when she is invited – easier said than done with a curious canine.

As she heads into the dog version of terrible teens she is definitely pushing boundaries. But even that hasn’t been too much of a problem because the supervisor explains that you simply behave as her mother would and get brusquely fierce with her and then ignore her, and if we are fierce enough it definitely works. As a result we almost certainly have a much better behaved dog than if she had been purely ours.
Our supervisor comes to see us roughly every six weeks and we are asked to go as often as possible to the puppy walking meets at Woodford Green, near the bottom of the M11. That means that we can ask questions about how to get her to stop pulling on the lead, how to keep her off the furniture, and get to meet the other puppy walkers who are good at swapping ideas. Walkers include families, singletons, men and women, with and without a dog of their own already. Some seem to have happily spent the last 10 or even 20 years with a trainee guide dog in tow. One plays double bass and the dogs attend all her concerts. Only problem she had, she said was when sitting in the audience for Aida at the Royal Albert Hall.

‘Won’t you miss her when she goes?’ is the regular question. For the two adults in the family, yes, we will probably miss the bodily company, but she is a tie andwe do want to be able to travel outside the UK, and you can’t take a trainee puppy abroad. For an annual holiday they arrange a stay for your puppy with another puppy walker.

The children say they will miss her and they probably will. Completely as expected, they adore hugging her, sometimes they even feed her and pick up the pooh. And occasionally they walk with herwhenmy daughter has revelled in the way a young dog means you get into conversation with all kinds of other people. But there must always be a permitted carer with her who is over 18, and the childrendon’t do the juggling making sure someone is there to look after the dog when we have other commitments.And asthe primary carers we might enjoy not worrying that our house smells faintly of dog, and perhaps ourselves as well after we have hugged her.

The children hope that Poppy will fail her training, and this is possible. She is I fear, not the brightest of dogs, though our supervisor says her alertness when out and about is just what you want. And guide dogs aren’t bred for brains because really intelligent dogs would find walking in a straight line impossibly boring. However, the Guide Dogs dogs are sweet natured;even when tiny Poppy was immediately supremely gentle with really little children, and is so people-friendly she would make the worst guard dog in existence.

But for me, what we are effectively doing is fostering, knowing that our charge will move on to another more permanent home. And when she does that she will enrich someone else’s life.

Meanwhile, our supervisor tells us she can arrange for us to have a new puppy even before Poppy leaves.

As well as puppy walkers, Guide Dogs are looking for short-term boarders to look after withdrawn/retired guide dogs while a new home is found for them. You need to be at home during the day and available for a few weeks at a time. Contact Sarah.Ford@guidedogs.org.uk 0118 983 0189 / 07900 705 095.

If you would like to know more about our experience drop me a line at newsletter@tppsg.org.