Back in June, I was very kindly invited by Eimear Kenneally of the Irish Guide Dogs for The Blind to visit their Head Quarters in Cork and find out all about their Puppy Raising Programme.
This amazing programme gives families the opportunity to foster a puppy from 7-8 weeks of age until they are 12-15 months and to be a part of that puppy’s incredible journey in becoming a Guide Dog for a person who is vision impaired, or an Assistance Dog for a family of a child with autism.
So on Monday 30th July, I hit the road to Cork for one of the best Mondays I have ever had!
As I was met in reception by the lovely Tara, the first thing that struck me was the size of the Irish Guide Dogs centre. I had no idea how big this place is!
The buildings stretch out across a huge campus incorporating offices, training areas, dog raising facilities and a residence block for clients.
Tara explained that when a client is being paired with their dog, they stay at the centre for 3 weeks while they train together and get to know each other.
They are building a life-changing relationship based on trust and patience.
After a quick coffee, I was brought upstairs to sit in on a puppy raising class. Once a month, the puppy raising families come into the centre to take part in an hour long training session.
Puppy raisers are selected very carefully for their suitability. As well as the continual dog training, they must also complete a 4 part e-learning programme at home.
The puppies are brought in one by one and are immediately given a ‘cong’ to lick, a piece of rubber filled with dog food. This licking releases endorphines which calm the dogs.
And they need lots of calming! With up to 5 puppies in a class at one time, there is lots going on. The main aim is to get the puppy to focus solely on its owner, to ignore all the sounds and smells around it.
Training is repetitive and gradual, and the level of patience the handlers have is incredible! There is a very slow introduction to the equipment involved, i.e. head collars/jackets, and all the training is positive reinforcement.
Every step, no matter how small, is crucial to the puppy’s development.
These are the building blocks for a dog to become a reliable and responsive companion. I was blown away by the level of dedication from these families, some of whom are doing this for the second or third time.
After speaking with one of the puppy raisers, Brian Kenna, it is easy to see the bond and the joy that these dogs bring to their families. Brian’s puppy Zac is the second dog they have raised.
He very kindly sent me a picture of the day his daughter Ruth met Zac for the first time. A picture speaks a thousand words!
People have a common misconception that Guide Dogs cannot be touched, but their socialisation is crucial. They are part of the family, and many puppy raisers actually already have other dogs in their homes.
The Irish Guide Dogs have a strict breeding programme, currently with 3 stud dogs and 13 brood bitches. It is crucial to know the dog’s blood line and personality traits. Despite this, there is a 14% withdrawal rate meaning not every pup is suitable.
They may experience body sensitivity so are unable to wear the equipment; they may have medical issues; or some may just not have the temperament suited to this work.
These pups go on to be companion or ambassador dogs, representing the association at events, or they become a home pet. And there is a HUGE waiting list for these little guys!
After the puppy raising class, Eimear gave me a tour of their amazing facility and gave me the opportunity to take a walk with one of their gorgeous puppies, Heidi.
Together we walked around the training block; up slopes, down steps, in and out of a lift, and outside, all the while doing the positive reinforcement training. And all the while I fell more in love with this gorgeous golden bundle!
Throughout my visit I became aware of just how much work and dedication is given to training these special dogs. The Puppy Raising Programme is such a crucial part of the process, and I truly admire the families that decide to get involved.
I was surprised to learn that the Irish Guide Dogs are crying out for puppy raisers! There are currently 87 puppy raisers in Ireland. That number needs to increase to 120 in order to have enough training dogs in the future to provide Guide dogs and Assistance dogs for those on the waiting list.
To me, this is the perfect opportunity for a family to experience the joy of raising a puppy for 12 months, knowing that they are helping a tremendously important cause.
Knowing that they are an integral part of this dog’s life before it becomes a companion to someone who so desperately needs it.
What an amazing journey to be a part of.
For more information about the Puppy Raising Programme, check out the Irish Guide Dogs website today!