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When Dog Really is Man’s Best friend

Image: www.corkbeo.ie

Sometimes when I am on my way to work in the morning there is a young woman on the bus with her guide dog. He or she is a lovely golden colour and has the most beautiful soulful eyes. People, especially children are naturally tempted to engage with guide dogs, but this is discouraged as they are working animals and should not have their attention diverted. They are in fact trained to ignore all distractions around them and to focus solely on their owner’s needs. Often, reliance on a guide dog is the only thing standing between the owner and serious injury or death.

Today, Friday 24 May is Irish Guide Dog Day. The charity’s annual fundraising campaign was launched by Munster and Ireland player Jack Crowley. The Cork soccer legend and Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane, another Ambassador and staunch supporter of the charity, once joked that he now gets recognized a lot for his connection with Irish Guide Dogs rather than football!

Founded in 1976 by the late Mary Dunlop and Jim Dennehy, the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind filled a much-needed gap in services, for prior to its formation, Mary had been fundraising to send people with a visual impairment to the UK for training with a guide dog.  Jim, who had lost his sight eight years previously in a sporting accident, was the first person in Ireland to train with a Long Cane, and then with a guide dog; training for which had to be done in Torquay in Devon. Recognising the importance of providing services in this country, they set about forming IGDB, and in 1981 their headquarters at Model Farm Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork was officially opened by the then Taoiseach, Dr Garret Fitzgerald. In 1988 training in the Orientation & Mobility Programme was introduced  followed by a  Child Mobility  programme in 1999. Since then, services have continued to expand.

Lives Made Better

In 2005 their Dog Assistance Programme – the first of its kind in Europe – was launched. Assistance dogs are very much like guide dogs but are trained to work with an autistic child and his/her family. They are a wonderful tool in helping to control and improve the behaviour of the young boy or girl concerned by promoting calmness and acting as a safety aid to parents.  Outings to public places become much less stressful and families enjoy much greater freedom and mobility.

Parents of children with autism have reported that their children have shown a greater aptitude towards learning, improved participation in social activities, improved communication and social skills, greater self-confidence and an increased sense of responsibility.

Literature, artwork, engravings and woodcuts have led historians to believe that service animals date back at least to the mid-16th century. However, the first systematic attempt to train dogs to assist blind people came around 1780 at Les Quinze-Vingts hospital for the blind in Paris. Despite that, it was only really in the early to mid -1900’s that guide dog training institutes became more prevalent, enabling far greater accessibility.

Learning How

Today, golden retrievers crossed with labradors represent the highest percentage of guide dogs, due to their ability to combine the best characteristics of both breeds. The result is a dog that is calm in nature,  with a fantastic temperament. All breeds have to be willing workers, used for people and other animals, and not afraid of noise or crowds, especially within bustling modern city environments.

It takes approximately 18 months to train a guide dog from birth. First, the puppy lives for about a year in a verified household, which has volunteered to raise him or her under specific guidelines. This environment helps nurture the puppy and teaches it house training and obedience. Next, the dog must go through its formal guide dog training which is conducted by professionals and lasts about 4-6 months  At about 18 months the guide dog meets its intended partner, and they train together for a few weeks before becoming long-term companions.

A working dog will generally retire around the age of 10. This is very difficult for both dog and owner as they will have spent many happy years together.  Sometimes the guide or assistance dog owner will keep their dog as a pet for the remainder of their lives.  If they cannot,  IGDB always find a suitable home for these amazing dogs. Every nominated home has to be assessed to ensure the ongoing welfare of the animal who has given so much.

Guide dogs offer more than just practical assistance; they also provide companionship and emotional support. The bond between a guide dog and its handler is unique and plays a significant role in the welfare of the individual. It is a transforming partnership like no other.

Written by Marie–Therese Cryan

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