Saffron Walden guide dog teacher reveals what life is like as a pup trainer
- Credit: Archant
It’s a sunny morning outside in Saffron Walden as smiling faces look up from their drinks in the coffee shop and the girls at the counter lean over to coo, as a very special duo make a modest entrance.
Dee Bevan, of Woburn Place, Duxford, and Herbie, a 19-week-old yellow Labrador, make their way through a sea of turning heads and outstretched hands. But this is no ordinary puppy and his owner.
Herbie is destined to be a guide dog and Dee is tasked with getting him through his first 14 months of training. She was teamed up with Herbie 12 weeks ago, after parting with her first puppy just two days before.
“All of the guide dog puppy walkers are really inspiring,” said Dee, once Herbie has dutifully settled himself under the table. “We have to teach them to go to the toilet on command and teach them the basics but a lot of it is just taking them out and getting them to experience new environments.”
Herbie is a sponsored puppy which means he has been named by sponsors who receive regular pictures and updates on his progress.
“It makes you really want to get it right,” she added, “We get them at seven-weeks-old, straight from the litter, and they leave us at 13 to 14-months-old.
“But one in three don’t actually qualify. You can have the best puppy in the world but some don’t get on with the harness.”
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Puppy Walkers like Dee take care of a puppy for the first stage of training before sending them to guide dog school between 14 to 17-months-old.
Guide Dogs organisation provides all the food and pays the vet’s bills for each puppy, with the cost for full training estimated at around £32,000. The lifetime cost of a guide dog is £50,000 with all funding entirely dependent on public support.
“Herbie is quite a little celebrity in Saffron Walden,” Dee, 44, said, giving him an affectionate stroke. “His picture was in the paper when I first got him and I have had complete strangers coming up to me in town saying ‘This must be Herbie.’”
Indeed, the conversation is continually interrupted by people stopping to say hello and hoping to give him a pet and a scratch. His tail wags happily and he cheerfully laps up the attention.
“That’s one thing I find really hard,” she added, “Saying ‘no’ to people when he is being distracted, but it will get easier once he gets his guide dog jacket.”
Guide Dogs Saffron Walden had a successful fund raising session on Tuesday, May 12, when volunteers held a collection outside Boots in the Market Square and in Hill Street below Waitrose.
The group raised £487 and were extremely grateful for the public’s generosity and support. Unfortunately Herbie was too young to attend at the time.
“I love dogs and I am doing something worthwhile,” said Dee. “I was in Tesco with Herbie and a lady came over and told me her nephew had just got his first guide dog.
“It was all quite emotional, knowing I am doing something that is going to help someone, especially when people tell you how it changes lives. We really do take our sight for granted.”
Puppy Walkers are completely voluntary and are key to teaching the dogs basic commands and introducing them to obstacles such as stairs, lifts and public transport.
The task is a big commitment and can be emotional, especially when the puppies are handed over for professional training.
Dee said: “I think the biggest thing is having them with you constantly. I have him with me all the time, even in the ladies, as he has to learn to fit in and out of cubicles.
“It’s just like having a child; I think I suffer with puppy brain. I have been so lucky with him from day one, he has never whimpered and he settled in straight away.”
Under the table Herbie chomps happily at a treat – it’s easy to see why Dee loves the job so much.
Growing restless, he starts to chew on her cardigan, giving the cue that it is time to leave. The girls at the counter lean over to say goodbye and Dee is stopped for a chat several times before she reaches the exit.
Herbie demonstrates his special status by waiting patiently for the door to be opened before leading the way out. Then, with a last wag of the tail, the pair disappear out into the sunshine.
Anyone wishing to donate to Guide Dogs can visit: www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/fundraising/donate.