We assembled in their reception area to sign in, volunteer guides arrived, some with ex-guide dogs and they were happy to let the waiting children pat and stroke the dogs while waiting.
We started off in a big airy room, and after the usual formalities of signing in, fire-drill announcements and so on, one of the volunteers did a brief introduction. We learned there are around 3 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK. 25,0000 children are blind or partially sighted, 15,000 of whom are totally blind. She also talked a little about dog safety.
There was a brief examples of what the different kinds of partially sighted looks like, from cataracts (which produce blurry vision), diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma to total blindness - the latter being relatively rare.
We split into three smaller groups of about 7 or 8 people and two guides and a dog accompanied each group. Each sub-group rotates around the different parts of the building in turn, during the course of the tour, so individual groups may complete the tour in a different sequence.
Our little group started off by looking down through the viewing windows at the puppies in the post-whelping area, which were all adorable (you cannot go into any of the rooms or touch the puppies). During the course of the tour, the guide explained about how they are bred, what whelping and post-whelping are and how each dog and bitch are paired by considering their genetic history and so on. Ideally the puppies are born (whelped) at home but some are born at the centre. Regardless of where the puppy is born, when it is a few weeks old, it is brought into the centre for one week for medical checks, immunisations, chipping and profiling.
Puppies are profiled on a scale of 1-10 and they choose the puppies in the middle of the scale. Some puppies are selected for their breeding programme and others withdrawn at the profiling stage. The remaining puppies to go to puppy walkers and then onto training.
The puppy-walking stage lasts until they are around 12-14mths. It is the puppy-walker's job to ensure that the puppy gets used to a variety of different situations. They are guide-dogs-in-training, so they can (and indeed must) be brought into any place that a guide dog is allowed to go, so that they can get used to being in shops, on public transport, rural and urban areas.
Dogs that are withdrawn from the programme often become hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs for the disabled or sniffer dogs.
It will take around two years to fully train a Guide Dog and it costs about £50,000!
Whilst we were outside, the guide pointed out some of the environmentally-friendly features of their building design, like the V shaped roofs and the absence of grout between tiles, both to harvest the rainwater. They also have a biomass boiler which powers the underfloor heating.
Downstairs, there is a sensory tunnel set up. Although it is dark, you wear a special blindfold, so that you can experience total blindness. If children are reluctant to participate, they are not pressurised. Adults/teachers can also experience the sensory tunnel (and all the other "hands-on" aspects of the tour. Afterward going through the tunnel, the child is asked for one word to describe their feelings. At the end of the tour, they provide the list of these words to the group leader so it can be used as a "starting off" point for further work.
The guides explained about naming and marking: At birth, the dogs are marked with a dab of nail varnish: (For those who want to know: the first male and female are not marked; the second male and female are marked on the right shoulder, the third are marked on the left shoulder; the fourth on their right haunch, the fifth on the left haunch, the sixth male and female are marked on the base of the tail, the seventh on the back of the neck, the eighth on the head. On the rare occasion there is a ninth puppy of the same sex, they have to be more creative!)
Each litter is assigned a letter and names are chosen to begin with that letter. Normally, the family who look after the dogs in their own homes submit the list of names. The names are checked to make sure they are special but not overly-complicated, fairly short and easy to pronounce. Names are not assigned until after profiling, which is one of the reasons why the puppies are marked at birth.
We paired up and had a go at being a "sighted guide" and being blindfolded to be guided. Our tour guide demonstrated the best way to guide someone and explained the importance of talking to the person being guided. Volunteers can undergo training to be a sighted guide. We also had a go at using canes whilst blindfolded. Our guide pointed out the newer canes feature a roller at the bottom so they are no longer "tapped" and also explained the need to "sweep and step."
The functions of each building/area on the site were explained by reference to a contoured map. The children were encouraged to feel the map with their hands and fingers to better appreciate how partially sighted and blind people must literally feel their way. Other insightful tidbits of information were shared, such as pointing out the braille underneath the printed signage, the contrasting colour-scheme and blue borders to help partially sighted people.
There was a brief introduction to Louis Braille and how and why he developed Braille. We had a go at reading and writing in braille and using a braille machine to write our names and we were able to take our braille names away with us.
We learned that each harness is made especially for the Guide Dog and it's owner. Different variations and styles exist for different preferences of both dog and owner. The guides pointed out some changes and advances in design, for example, the old-style buckles have been replaced with clips or velcro.
The tour was very interesting, varied and well-paced. Throughout the tour, the volunteer guides were helpful, friendly, knowledgeable and had a genuine enthusiasm for all the work the Guide Dogs and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association do and this came through in the actual "delivery", so to speak.
School tours are by prior arrangement during weekdays and last approximately two hours. The tone and content are just right for the age 8-11yr age-group that they aim it at. They also do scheduled public tours and half-day "puppy-helper experience" (there is a charge for the latter.) The site is wheelchair accessible. You cannot bring pets but Guide Dog stock are made welcome. Their website has a number of online educational resources in relation to Guide Dogs.
There are dogs (usually either breeding stock dogs or retired breeding stock) on the tour. Children who are nervous of dogs are dealt with sensitively; they are gently supported to go at their own pace and not pressurised to approach the dogs.
We took 16 children aged between 8 and 14 years old and 5 adults. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association arranged for six volunteer guides to conduct the tour. Teachers/adults are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the tour.
It is also possible to volunteer for the Guide Dogs, as a puppy walker, custodian family for the breeding stock dogs, a tour guide and a sighted guide, to name a few. They also hold waiting lists for re-homing retired or withdrawn guide dogs.
(This is NOT a sponsored post)