Guide dog in training

Have you ever wondered how guide dogs are socialised as puppies? What's a puppy walker and what does it involve? Browns Bay mother of three, Rowena Maunsell, says puppy walking a future guide dog was a rewarding experience.

In 2012, my husband Chris was reading the local paper and spotted an ad looking for volunteer puppy walkers. These volunteers socialise puppies that go on to be guide dogs, so it's an important job!

My kids: Amelia (now 10), EJ (8) and Tessa (4), jumped on the idea. After having a family discussion where we stressed that this puppy would most likely grow up to be something very special for someone blind and wouldn't be ours forever, we contacted Blind Foundation Guide Dogs about having our first family guide dog puppy.

Our family fit the rules for puppy walkers: you can't work full-time, you can have only one pre-schooler and you need a fully-fenced dog-proof section. Plus, you need to be fairly fit and active. After the Blind Foundation had assessed our home and talked to us about training and how our puppy would need to go everywhere that we went (to the shops, restaurants and school trips), our puppy Wilma arrived.

We loved the puppy walking experience. There is no doubt that during the months when the puppy is little and toilet training is top of the list, it is a lot of work trying to minimise accidents both in the house and out in public; but that stage is relatively shortlived. Having a guide dog puppy gets you a lot of attention: people love to stop and say, hello; ask what your role as a puppy walker entails; and almost always ask how you could possibly give the dog back.

In particular, my kids loved having Wilma. She was special and they felt special when they were out with her. All three kids were very eager to help collect for the Red Puppy Appeal (the Blind Foundation's annual appeal for guide
dog fundraising).

Even though we had spoken to the kids many times about the reality of Wilma not living with us permanently, I always believed that the actual day we would say goodbye was going to be a very traumatic experience for all of us. But on the day of reckoning with Wilma, it wasn't as bad as I had imagined. All three kids came with us to Blind Foundation Guide Dogs in Manurewa to meet with Wilma's trainer, and as we left the kennels we had tears, but they didn't last too long. We all still miss Wilma though, she was a big part of our lives for 16 months.

I've always maintained that having a guide dog is more than like having an accessory, they are with you almost constantly and go everywhere you do. I heard that's why many owners look at orthopedic dog beds on sale, to help preserve their guide dog's joints as they do a lot of activity for blind people who are constantly out and about.

When you had a guide dog puppy and they are no longer there, you have the feeling of missing something but can't quite put your finger on what. I used to find myself opening the front passenger door of the car even when I no longer had a puppy to let in or out.

However, I would do it again in a heartbeat. The puppies are hard work and some of the stages are extremely frustrating at times, but it is all so worth it. . One of the ways to control puppIies during these times is by using a training collar, also called an e-collar. Trainers generally use it to curb the aggressive behavior in young doggies. At the same time, it is important to be gentle and patient with these animals during training. If patience isn't a virtue for you, then consider hiring an experienced trainer. The Newcastle Dog Trainer could be one option worth your time if you live in the UK. Trainers from such centers are well adept in the use of reinforcement training devices like e-collars; so learning from them would always help train dogs to be better guide dogs. These dogs bring mobility, independence and companionship to blind people.

If you have the time to look after a puppy and have a fully fenced, dog-proof section, Blind Foundation Guide Dog staff will provide full support. Please go to blindfoundation.org.nz/get-involved/help-a-guide-dog/puppy-walkers to find out more.

9 doggy tips

Here are 9 things you should consider before choosing a dog for your family.

  1. children

Probably the most important thing you'd want to consider when choosing a dog is whether or not it is good with children. Although this can come down to the individual dog and its training, some breeds and sizes are more definitely more suitable as family dogs than others.

  1. breed

Breed characterisitics such as adaptability, affection level, barking tendencies, exercise needs, health issues, intelligence, playfulness, watchdog ability, social needs, trainability and shedding level all need to be taken into account.

  1. available space

All dogs require living space, however, some breeds require more space than others. You should consider how much space you have available in both your home and in your backyard. Generally speaking, the larger the dog, the more space that is required to maintain the pet. Is your property fully-fenced? Outdoor fencing or an invisible fence is a great way to keep dogs from escaping any area of a backyard, large or small.

  1. other pets

Some dogs are great with other pets, whereas others are not. This often depends a good deal on the breed of the dog and for what they were traditionally bred. For example, a Terrier and a pet bunny are probably not the best mix. It can also depend on the age of the dog when it is introduced to the incumbent pet(s). For example, many puppies are fine with the family cat when they are introduced to it at a young age.

  1. time

Dogs need attention, playtime and regular exercise.
You should factor this in when considering getting a dog. Will you be at home to play with it and let it out to the toilet? Will you and/or the children have time to take it for daily walks?

  1. age

Do you want a puppy or adult dog? Puppies are cute and trainable, but hard work. An adult dog is already toilet-trained and generally calmer, but does it have any annoying bad habits, has it been mistreated, is it used to being in a noisy family with children? If choosing a puppy, someone will need to be home during the day to keep it company and to toilet-train it.

  1. home alone

You also need to consider how often a dog is going to be left at home for extended periods of time.

Will someone always be at home for most of the day? Is there somewhere you could put a dog flap for your dog to use? Would your dog need to go into Kennels often if yours is a family that travels regularly? (Kennels add extra costs to your budget.)

  1. maintenance

Dogs cost money. There are obvious costs such as food and bedding. It is important that your dog gets the vital nutrients (for more info, check ultimate pet nutrition) that it requires at the right age. Also, don't forget all the hidden extras: a lifetime of vet bills for accidents, any hereditary problems your dog may have, immunizations, annual checkups, and possible disease; grooming; worming, and flea medication; kennel costs, for example.

  1. lifestyle

You should consider your family's lifestyle when choosing a dog. Is yours an active family that spend a lot of time outdoors, enjoys long walks and would suit an active, outdoorsy kind of dog? Or would you prefer a breed of dog that's more suited to the indoor lifestyle, with lower activity needs?

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