Charity a Guiding Light That Transforms LivesNeil Hardie
Forfar has a long history with the Guide Dogs charity, going back nearly 60 years.
Around 8,000 dogs have been trained to date at the Angus operation.
There are around 45 staff and more than 150 volunteers at the site, which can train up to 160 dogs per year.
Forfar is Guide Dogs’ main centre for Scotland.
The association’s teams north of the border in Forfar, Edinburgh and Glasgow provide life-changing mobility services to adults, children ad young people with sight loss.
Wendy Kinnin, head of canine assisted services at Guide Dogs Scotland, described how the UK charity came about.
“She said: “In 1931, Muriel Crook and Rosamund Bond started training dogs to support servicemen who had lost their sight in World War 1.
“Inspired by projects in America, Germany and Switzerland, these remarkable women organised the training from a humble lock-up garage in Wallasey, Merseyside.
“Back then, the idea was pretty radical – but the impact was immediate.
“Within six months of meeting German shepherd dogs Flash, Folly, Meta and Judy, their new owners reported finding a freedom and independence they had not known since before the war.
“Three years later, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was formed.
“Since then, 36,000 lives have been transformed through a guide-dog partnership and many thousands more as the charity has developed and expanded its services over the decades.
“Having started with just four dogs, Guide Dogs UK is now responsible for 8,400 puppies and dogs at any one time.
“The charity is one of the only organisations globally that breeds and nurtures dogs throughout their lifetime – with more than 300 trainers, and 4,600 dog partnerships supported.
“With more than 90 years’ experience creating life-changing partnerships, Guide Dogs is expert in creating and nurturing strong relationships between people and dogs.
“Every partnership is built on trust, after carefully considering the needs and characteristics of each person and dog to find the perfect match.”
The original Guide Dogs training centre in Forfar was the first in Scotland. It was on the old Dundee Road and was opened in 1965 by Princess Alexandra.
In 2008, Guide Dogs officially moved to its Forfar training school at Orchardbank Business Park, where it remains today. it is now known as the Forfar regional centre.
Guide Dogs is almost entirely dependent on donations for its funding.
Kinnin said: “We are incredibly grateful to the many fundraising volunteers we have across Angus and further afield, as well as local organisations and businesses who are committed to supporting Guide Dogs.
“And without our amazing volunteers, we would not be able to change as many lives as we currently do through our wide range of services.”
She said the Anus training school is world-class adding: “It has an outdoor area where our dogs can get used to different paving types, traffic lights and obstacles such as bollards and road signs.
“Our innovative kennels were designed in an L-shape so that the dogs can see and interact with each other and staff.
The dogs that pass through our doors go on to be valuable guides and companions to people not only in Scotland, but all over the UK.”
The association has its own breeding programme at the Guide Dogs national centre in England.
Puppies are then placed with volunteer raisers throughout the UK, who look after them for 12-16 months. The dog then begins formal training at one of the country’s centres.
Several different breeds are used to provide a wide and diverse range of guide dogs to suit client needs.
Kinnin said: “Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds have been and remain our most common pure breeds on the programme.
“Historically the golden retriever crossed with the Labrador has produced the most successful guide dogs of all, combining many of the great traits of both breeds.
“However, we have recognised that other breeds and indeed other crosses may lend additional benefits to guide dog users and, as such, we now have curly-coated retrievers and two standard poodles on the breeding programme.”
As well as guide dogs, the association produces buddy dogs.
Kinnin explained; “Our buddy dogs have been given a career change because life as a guide dog wasn’t right for them.
“Buddy dogs bring a new friend into the lives of children with sight loss. By helping to develop their self-confidence, improve relationships and build a greater sense of trust, these dogs can have a hugely positive effect on a child’s wellbeing – and on the family, too.
“If a dog is withdrawn from the training programme or from their role as a guide dog and is not suitable to become a buddy dog, we look to rehome them.”
Kinnin explained a bit more about the process of training dogs to be guides.
She went on: “This involves work in and out of the centre, and what stage the dog is at depends on what I a am doing with them.
“It’s important for our dogs to be able to guide a visually impaired person safely from A to B. but it’s also important for them to be able to settle in social situations and be comfortable in different environments like the vets, on a bus or in the city centre.”
Guide Dogs is appealing for volunteer fosterers in Angus who can look after a trainee guide dog during evenings and weekends.
Wendy added: “As a fosterer, locals would provide a temporary and loving home for a dog in training while they embark on their journey to becoming a guide dog.
“This is a vital role, which supports the charity in creating new guide-dog partnerships for people living with sight loss.”
Regional volunteering partner Emma Murton explained: “This could be perfect for someone who loves dogs, but can’t commit to looking after one full-time.
“It also means they can enjoy the benefits of a dog without the added expense, as we will cover their food and vet costs.”