I attended a special networking event earlier this week at the Holiday Inn Edinburgh West.
Staff from Guide Dogs Scotland were there to raise awareness and funds.
The highlight of the morning was a talk from two of the staff, Linda and Leigh.
Guide Dogs Scotland’s work
Linda told us some facts and figures about the charity’s work.
- To train a guide dog from a puppy to retirement costs a staggering £55,000.
- Edinburgh and the east of Scotland have 280 guide dog owners.
- The breeding centre in the UK is in Leamington Spa.
- Guide dog breeds include German Shepherd, Labrador and Retriever. The Labrador Retriever breed is commonest.
- Puppy walkers are volunteers who look after the puppies for 12-14 months.
- There are 4 training schools in the UK – the Scottish one is in Forfar.
- After early training, the dogs go to the mobility team.
- Dogs are matched to owners based on location, pace, temperament, owner’s lifestyle and other factors.
- When a dog is paired up initially with the owner they spend two weeks together at a hotel to bond.
- Guide dogs typically work for 7-8 years and retire around age 11.
- Guide Dogs Scotland don’t just offer guide dogs! They also provide human guides, children’s services and long cane training.
Leigh’s experience with visual impairment began when he was sitting his driving test age 17 in Wales.
He was asked to read the number plate and realised he couldn’t, which was an automatic fail.
After doctors’ tests, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It’s a genetic condition which causes the cells of the retina to die. He was told he would be blind by age 40.
Leigh wanted to forget about the condition. He managed to cope until age 30 when he noticed his night vision was poor. When he started to make mistakes at work he felt he had to tell his employer. Unfortunately, he was fired a few weeks later.
After he lost his job he retreated within himself and didn’t want people to know about his sight loss.
Moving to Edinburgh and getting help from RNIB and Guide Dogs ScotlandLeigh’s life began to improve after he met his partner Christine and they moved to Edinburgh to make a fresh start. Leigh sought assistance from the RNIB and was taught how to use the long cane. He hated it and used to throw it on the floor.
His reaction to being asked if he wanted a guide dog was “Isn’t that for blind people?” But guide dogs are for partially sighted people too, and Leigh agreed to have a chat about the possibility of owning one.
His first encounter with a guide dog came from George who took him walking with a dog in Leith. It went well, and Leigh was told he was a great candidate.
Next, he met Gavin, who was incredibly enthusiastic. Leigh soon got onto the waiting list for a guide dog.
A couple of months later he got a call from Paco, who took him for a try-out in Portobello High Street. He got to put the collar on the dog and immediately got licked by him! But it was an amazing feeling to be walking on his own for the first time in ten years.
Leigh was told not to get his hopes up, but a couple of days later he heard back: “William is a great match for you”. He and Christine were in tears.
Leigh went through intensive training with William to integrate him into his home.
He had to learn:
- Putting William to bed
The hardest thing to learn was telling William where he needed to go through voice and gestures.
It wasn’t a case of “Right William, Morrisons today!” Guide dogs are not sat-navs!
Gradually Paco reduced the amount of support so it was just Leigh and William. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Early on William stood on a wasp and pooped outside Harvey Nichols, but eventually, they Leigh and William made a good team.
Christine especially was delighted to see Leigh get out independently. Leigh had forgotten what an impact his sight loss had on his partner and family.
November 4 holds a special place in Leigh’s heart. It was the day he failed his driving test but also the day he qualified with William, 20 years later.
Leigh now works full-time with Guide Dogs Scotland in their business support section. He started as a fundraising volunteer and the job opportunity came up later.
I got my life back again. I go to work with my best pal by my side.
We were invited to ask questions and learned more:
William is now 9 years old. He needs to be monitored more closely as he approaches retirement age. Leigh won’t be able to keep him when he retires, but he will go to a good home.
When a guide dog is working, he will wear a yellow harness. You shouldn’t distract a working guide dog. Ask the owner first if it’s okay to pet their dog.
There are still times Leigh’s been refused entry to public places with William. This contravenes the Equality Act – there are only a very few exceptions to the refusal of access.
If you are a guide dog owner you have to get used to dog hair! Leigh says his home is black from the hairs that William sheds.
1 in 20 people go blind every day in the UK.
Owning a guide dog keeps you fit. Leigh lost three stone in the first 9 months of having William from all the extra walking.
Leigh prefers to browse websites with inverted colours. His pet hate is sites that don’t look readable when inverted. This would include any site with poor colour contrast. Chrome has a high contrast extension to simulate different contrasts including inversion.
Leigh’s job is most rewarding when he speaks to guide dog applicants before and after they receive a dog and they can see the life-changing impact.
Guide Dogs Scotland are doing a Meet Guide Dogs day in Edinburgh on 21 November if you want to meet puppies. I would like to visit the office and find out more about people with visual impairments manage day-to-day life (with or without dogs).
Many thanks to Hazel Johnstone for organising the event, and of course Linda, Leigh and William.