West Yatton couple steer guide dogs into a life of retirement

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald: Janet Smith with retired guide dog Monica Janet Smith with retired guide dog Monica

About 25 dogs have come and gone at Janet and Steve Smith’s house in the last six years. Few stay there longer than three months, and some are gone in two weeks.

The high turnover is not because the Smiths are easily bored, but because their house in West Yatton is where guide dogs stay while a suitable retirement home is found.

At the moment they are looking after a seven-and-a-half-year-old black labrador who is entering a well-earned retirement after working six years. Her owner was given the option of keeping her on as a pet but was unable to.

Other dogs arrived with the Smiths at a younger age, between 12 and 18 months, after being withdrawn from the guide dog training scheme because of poor health or behaviour.

Monica, a labrador-retriever-cross now aged five, was adopted when she was found to be too distracted by cats.

Some have been rehomed as police sniffer dogs or buddy dogs for sight impaired children.

“They live as the family pet and the child gets used to dogs so they have the option of a guide dog in the future,” said Mrs Smith, who also works part-time as a supply teacher.

Families who apply are vetted by the rehoming officer in Leamington Spa to make sure there is someone at home 20 hours in the day, as guide dogs have spent most of their lives with constant human companionship.

The Smiths also looked after Rhana, the matriarch of the Chippenham and Corsham Guide Dogs branch, who died of cancer in March aged eight.

Her name lives on in an eight-week-old puppy who is being trained up for the important role by a couple in Corsham.

Volunteers George and Janice McCaffery, of Pickwick Road, have been puppy-walking for about seven years.

It is they who impart the skills in the first year of the guide dogs’ lives, and get them used to walking around public places such as schools, shops and hospitals, before they go off for more intensive training with a harness.

“In the first year they’re going to experience as much as possible, so they’re not surprised by anything later on,” said Mr McCaffery, 58.

They feed the puppies on the whistle so that the noise is associated with treats. In this way they learn to wait at all kerbs, stairs and doors and to obey the command ‘leave’ so they do not pick up accidently dropped food.

They are also trained not to jump up, lick, or give their paws – adorable actions that will melt your heart from a scampering puppy, but from a fully-grown dog are all potentially harmful to a person unable to see.

The pups are also given plenty of time to play when off the harness, said Mr McCaffery, though balls are a no-no to avoid developing the chase instinct.

“If you let her off the leash she’ll be straight through that door. But with a harness on she would know to stop and judge if her owner could fit through the space,” he said.

The McCafferys have just welcomed Rhana into their home, but in about a month it will be time to say goodbye to their other housemate, 11-month-old Albert.

Mrs McCaffery, 54, a dentist, said: “It’s like seeing your kids go off to university. It doesn’t get easier. How do I do it? By knowing the job they’re going onto and that they’re going to help someone and knowing we’ve given them that start.”

Her husband said: “They make such a difference to people’s lives. One mum told me she got to walk her kids to school for the first time.

“One man said, when I got my dog I was able to go out and buy my wife’s Christmas present for the first time ever on my own. She’d always had to be there with him before.”

There are about 4,700 guide dog owners in the UK. Five oare in north Wiltshire, including Calne and Corsham.

But the RNIB estimates there are almost two million people living with sight loss, and guide dogs cost nearly £50,000 over their working lives. Anyone who would like to volunteer to raise funds can call 0845 372 7428.

Visit http://tinyurl.com/ otcuzbo for rehoming.

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