Ex-guide dog Oates notches up a first for Scotland, taking up new post with war blind

Julie Scanlon with GDMA Deb Hiscox and her father Richard Holmes who has been walking Oates
Julie Scanlon with GDMA Deb Hiscox and her father Richard Holmes who has been walking Oates
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SCOTLAND’S first buddy dog for adults with sight problems has been undergoing his transformation from guide dog to buddy dog in Coldstream, writes Janice Gillie.

Oates took up his new role at the Linburn Centre for the Scottish War Blinded in West Lothian just before Christmas.

The five-year-old had been working as a guide dog but his owner became ill and died, and Oates had to move on. Having had limited work experience, Oates had developed some bad habits and was quite overweight, so much so that Guide Dogs for the Blind mobility assistant Deb Hiscox from Coldstream, made the assessment that he was no longer suitable as a guide dog.

Most guide dogs work until the age of 10, and at a cost of £50,000 to train and care for each dog, retiring Oates at the age of five was not really an option.

Guide Dogs for the Blind have developed a new service providing buddy dogs, each one trained to meet the requirements of the individuals or teams involved and Deb decided that once he was back in shape, because of his gentle nature, Oates was ideally suited for buddy dog work.

Guide Dogs for the Blind trustees agreed and released £5,000 for Oates to become a member of the Linburn Centre team.

Buddy dogs are all trained guide dogs who are unsuitable for the full guide dog programme. A young person’s buddy dog works within a specialist school or unit and is cared for by a teacher or professional working with blind and partially sighted young people, giving the youngsters the experience of looking after a dog before being given a guide dog. A team assessment buddy dog is placed with a member of staff and used to help guide dog applicants build up their skills, ability and confidence.

Oates will be the first adult’s buddy dog, providing companionship and emotional support to adults who may have had a guide dog in the past but are now unable to look after one.

For the past few months Oates has been looked after by Julie Scanlon, one of the eight volunteer guidedog boarders in Coldstream, and after walking miles each day with Julie, plus twice a week with Deb’s father Richard Holmes, he is now in great shape, having lost five kilos, and ready to face his new challenge.

Oates’s new home is with Sheila Mutch, a member of staff at the Linburn Centre for the Scottish War Blinded, and her family. He goes to work with her, spending time with the former members of the armed services with sight loss, who have the chance to groom, feed and walk him.

Speaking before the transfer, Sheila said: “Oates will not be just a dog but a four legged member of the centre. He will be part of the daily life of the centre which includes being with the members at all times and taking part in activities such as the after lunch walk. Oates will be here for patting, hugs and socialising with the members, many of whom are dog lovers.”

The Guide Dogs for the Blind charity breeds its own dogs and, focusing mainly on four breeds (and a variation in crosses) – Labradors, Retrievers, German Shepherds and Collies – it has a 75 per cent success rate in breeding animals that are suited to becoming guide dogs. There can be many reasons why a working dog is no longer suitable as a guide dog prior to its natural retirement date, but because of their breeding and training they are usually adaptable, the new buddy dog programme being a natural transition.

Guide dog training starts when the puppies are six months old and without the help of fundraisers, voluntary puppy walkers, boarders and people taking working guide dogs for a good run on a regular basis, it would be impossible for the charity to achieve the level of success that it has done. All volunteers are police checked and have to be prepared to work within the parameters of the dog’s training – not being allowed on furniture, no tit bits etc (that’s the dogs not the boarders!).

“We couldn’t do our job without volunteers,” explained Deb, who has a City and Guild qualification in guide dog mobility assistance programme. She has been working with guide dogs and matching them up with owners since 1995, and with the Edinburgh team since 2006.

“But the dogs have strict rules and we need to know that the boarders will abide by them. Once a potential boarder has been cleared I do training with them so they know what the dog is expecting – walking to heel, kerb work, grooming, whistle feeding.”

While the dogs are in training they are boarded out, going to school during the day and returning to their foster families overnight and at weekends, usually for about 10 weeks. Then they are ready to be matched with an owner.

Deb gets the dogs that are in need of reassessment as well as those in training, and she has a team of 12 boarders in the Borders – eight in Coldstream, one in Sprouston, two in Peebles and one in Coldingham – to help her during their transition period. As they approach completion of their formal training, Deb starts looking at matching the dog with a potential owner and once a match is found, both owner and dog go through more training together before they finally go solo.

Job satisfaction is a given for Deb: “You see the effect having a dog has on some owners and the difference it makes to their lives is amazing.”

She and other members of the Edinburgh-based team are always on hand to help with any issues that arise and regular checks are made to ensure a match is working out.

One happy local duo is Hawick’s Diane Pender and her two-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever Marley. She and Marley, her first guide dog, were matched in November after Diane was assessed over 18 months ago.

Diane thinks the buddy dog system is beneficial. “I grew up with dogs but you can see how it could be daunting for someone who’s never had any experience of them. It costs incredible amounts of money to train the dogs so it’s important not to let habits creep in and undo their training.”

And she says of her own experience with Marley: “The difference is amazing. It’s really hard to explain but it’s like I’ve got my life back. You don’t have to rely on someone to be with you, you can just go. I’m more confident in my ability to go about. I would never have gone out in the dark before. Marley’s highly trained, he sits at kerbs and guides me up pavements and through crowds. You really do trust him because he knows what he is doing and because of the bond you build up with him.

“I’m just so fortunate, he’s a working dog but he’s also my pet and he does an amazing thing – and how many people are lucky enough to have their dog with them 24 hours a day?”