Guide dog makes ideal buddy

Julie Scanlon with GDMA Deb Hiscox and her father Richard Holmes who has been walking Oates
Julie Scanlon with GDMA Deb Hiscox and her father Richard Holmes who has been walking Oates

Scotland’s first buddy dog for adults with sight problems has been undergoing his transformation from guide dog to buddy dog in Coldstream, and this week Oates takes up his new role at the Linburn Centre for the Scottish War Blinded in West Lothian.

Five year old Oates has been working as a guide dog but as the health of his owner deteriorated the amount of work Oates had to do became restricted as they rarely ventured over the doorstep and when eventually his owner became too ill to take care of him and unfortunately died, it was time for Oates to move on.

Having had limited work experience Oates had developed some bad habits and was quite overweight, and Guide Dogs for the Blind mobility assistant Deb Hiscox from Coldstream, made the assessment that he was no longer suitable as a guide dog.

Most guide dogs work until the age of 10, and at a cost of £50,000 to train and care for each dog, retiring Oates at the age of five was not really an option. Guide Dogs for the Blind have developed a new service providing buddy dogs, each one trained to meet the requirements of the individuals or teams involved and Deb decided that once he was back in shape, because of his gentle nature Oates was ideally suited for buddy dog work.

Guide Dogs for the Blind trustees agreed and have released £5000 for Oates to become a member of the Linburn Centre team.

Buddy dogs are all trained guide dogs who are unsuitable for the full Guide Dog programme. A young person’s buddy dog works within a specialist school/unit and is cared for by a teacher or professional working with blind and partially sighted young people, providing them with the experience of looking after a dog and educating them in what their responsibilities will be prior to them being given a guide dog. A team assessment buddy dog is placed with a member of staff and used to help guide dog applicants build up their skills, ability and confidence. Oates will be the first adult’s buddy dog, providing companionship and emotional support to adults who may have had a guide dog in the past but are no longer able to look after one.

For the past few months Oates has been looked after by Julie Scanlon, one of the eight volunteer Guide Dog boarders in Coldstream, and after walking miles each day with Julie plus twice a week with Deb’s father Richard Holmes he is now in great shape, having lost five kilos, and is ready to face his new challenge.

Oates’s new home will be with Sheila Mutch, a member of staff at the Linburn Centre for the Scottish War Blinded and he will live with Sheila’s family, who couldn’t wait for him to join them after he visited them a couple of times. He will go to work with her spending time with the former members of the armed services who have a sight loss who will have the opportunity to groom, feed and walk him.

Sheila said: “Oates will not be just a dog but a four legged member of the centre. He will be part of the daily life of the centre which includes being with the members at all times and taking part in activities such as the after lunch walk.

“Oates would be here for patting, hugs and socialising with the members, many of whom are dog lovers and are looking forward to the arrival of Oates.”

The Guide Dogs for the Blind charity breed their own dogs and focusing mainly on four breeds (and a variation in crosses) - Labradors, Retrievers, German Shepherds and Collies - they have a 75 per cent success rate in breeding animals that are suited to becoming guide dogs. There can be many reasons why a working dog is no longer suitable as a guide dog prior to its natural retirement date, but because of their breeding and training they are usually adaptable, the new buddy dog programme being a natural transition.

Guide dog training starts when the puppies are six months old and from that time on without the help and assistance of fundraisers, voluntary puppy walkers, boarders and people taking working guide dogs for a good run on a regular basis it would be impossible for the charity to achieve the level of success that they have done. All volunteers are police checked and have to be prepared to work within the parameters of the dog’s training - not being allowed on furniture, no tit bits etc (that’s the dogs not the boarders!).

“We couldn’t do our job without volunteers,” explained Deb, who has a City and Guilds qualification in Guide Dog Mobility Assistance Programme and has been working with guide dogs and matching them up with owners since 1995, and with the Edinburgh team since 2006.

“But the dogs have strict rules and we need to know that the boarders will abide by them. Once a potential boarder has been cleared I do training with them so they know what the dog is expecting - walking to heel, kerb work, grooming, whistle feeding.”

While the dogs are in training they are boarded out, going to school during the day and returning to their foster families overnight and at weekends, usually for about 10 weeks when they are ready to be matched with an owner.

Deb gets the dogs that are in need of re-assessment as well as those in training and has a team of 12 boarders in the Borders - eight in Coldstream, one in Sprouston, two in Peebles and one in Coldingham - to help her during their transition period.

“One four year old dog came back in October because it didn’t work out with their owner and she was with one of the Coldstream boarders for a few weeks. We found a match for her with a new owner but they died three months after getting the dog so we are having to start again - but she’s adaptable.”

As they approach completion of their formal training, Deb starts looking at matching the dog with a potential owner and once a match is found then both owner and dog go through more training together before they finally go solo - as Helen and Dixie from Duns did two weeks ago.

Deb and other members of the Edinburgh based team are always on hand to help with any issues that arise and regular checks are made by them that the match is working out.

Job satisfaction is a given for Deb: “You see the effect having a dog has on some owners and the difference it makes to their lives is amazing.

“There was one person who went blind very quickly and he hardly went out of the house except when his friends came to take him to the pub. Eventually they told him that they wouldn’t take him to the pub any more until he got himself a guide dog and got out and about again - which he did and the difference has been inspirational.”