Puppy number 86 highlights sisters' leading role in charity's history

A NINE-week-old old black labrador called Uri has helped Alison and Betty Brown write themselves into the record books of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

For Uri is the 86th pup entrusted to the care and tutelage of the elderly sisters from Melrose – and that makes the ladies the most prolific, as well as the longest-serving, "puppy walkers" in the long history of a charity which currently provides dogs for more than 4,500 blind and visually-impaired people in the UK and Ireland.

"It is a truly remarkable achievement which reflects utter dedication to the cause," said Rosheen McCulloch, puppy walking supervisor for Guide Dogs in the east of Scotland.

In addition, Rosheen reckons the Brown sisters have raised well in excess of 1million at fund-raising events in the Borders, mainly by selling the charity's merchandise at local shows.

"They are so well known in Melrose and neighbouring Galashiels they are often given money by well-wishers while out on their rounds with the puppies," added Rosheen.

It all started 40 years ago when Betty, 82, read an article about the urgent need for volunteers to instill, at a tender age, basic obedience in would-be guide dogs. The aim is the same now as it was then – to produce a puppy that is socially well-behaved, friendly and responsive to its future handler.

"We were brought up around animals so we thought, why not?" recalled Betty. "Our first pups were called Cambus and Lang, and were sponsored for 250 by the Woman's Guild of, you've guessed it, Cambuslang. Today it costs the charity around 35,000 to breed, train and maintain a guide dog throughout its working life."

Like other puppy walkers, the sisters keep their charges for an average of a year and Uri, who will come under Betty's firm control, will receive his training alongside nine-month-old crossbreed Usher who is Alison's responsibility.

"It's our job to prepare the dog for the working life that lies ahead, so we take them on buses, across busy roads and into shops both in Melrose and Galashiels," explained Alison. "We even take them to church on Sundays".

The pair, who retired from their market gardening business at Greenyards six years ago, accept their efforts have made them local personalities.

"Most people know us and what we do and, although we are not blind ourselves, we get immunity to go into places where normal dogs are banned," said Betty, who is chairperson of the charity's Roxburghshire branch.

Betty reckons that only around 15 of the puppies under their care have failed to go on and make the grade as guide dogs.

"It's the same with people – some just don't like hard work!"

But Alison conceded it is often a wrench to part with the dogs at the end of their basic training.

"Like children, they all have their distinct characters and it's impossible not to get attached to them over a year. Fortunately there's little time to dwell on things before the next puppy comes along."

After their year with puppy walkers, who get expenses to cover food and vets bills, the animals go to one of the charity's four specialist training centres. In Scotland, they head for Forfar where they can spend up to six months under expert mobility instruction and temperament assessment before being matched with their guide dog owner.

Uri is one of 1,200 pups reared every year at the charity’s breeding establishment in Warwickshire where a successful cross of a labrador with an Italian Spinoni has recently been developed.

Despite their age, the Brown sisters have no intention of giving up their puppy walking duties.

“Not only does it keep us fit and alert, it’s extremely rewarding to know know you’re helping give independence and mobility to a blind person,” reflected Alison.

In recent years, however, the number of puppy walkers in Scotland has fallen and the charity is looking to recruit another 60 volunteers in the coming year.

Volunteers must have access to a car and be free to take their puppy into many varied environments, while their yard or garden must be securely fenced. For further information on becoming a puppy walker, contact Rosheen McCulloch on 07766 421425.