As a guide dog owner, the relationship I have with my dog is a fundamental part of my everyday life and vital for my wellbeing. However, my relationship with Guide Dogs, the organisation, is difficult and at times fraught – not at all enabling or empowering.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Morris Frank (1908-1980) who was a co-founder of the first guide dog school in the United States. He traveled throughout North America to promote the use of guide dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as the right of people with guide dogs to access restaurants, hotels, transportation, and other places that are open to the general public.
On November 5, 1927, Morris read an article about dogs being trained as guides for blinded veterans of World War I. Frustrated by his own lack of mobility as a blind person, he was inspired to write to its author, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog trainer living in Switzerland, to ask where he could get such a dog.
On February 9, 1928, Eustis called Frank and asked him if he would come to her dog-training school in Switzerland to be paired with a guide dog. Frank replied, ‘Mrs. Eustis, to get my independence back, I’d go to hell’. (This is how I feel at present.)
Due to restrictions on independent travel by blind people, Morris was shipped as a package via American Express from Nashville by steamship to Switzerland where he met Mrs. Eustis and her head trainer/geneticist, Jack Humphrey.
Morris brought Buddy, a German Shepherd, back to the United States in June 1928 and immediately began campaigning about the advantages of using an assistance dog. He famously demonstrated Buddy’s skill to reporters by having her lead him safely across two of Manhattan’s busiest and most dangerous streets.
‘The Seeing Eye’ was born with the dream of making the entire world accessible to people who are blind.
In 1930, two British women, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, heard about ‘The Seeing Eye’ and contacted Dorothy Eustis, who sent over one of her trainers. In 1931, the first four British guide dogs completed their training and three years later The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was founded in the UK.
Over the twenty years plus I’ve been a guide dog owner, increasing the number of partnerships has been a priority, with a target of 1,000 partnerships a year. A bit like one of those Government targets, it has been unobtainable.
Currently, there is a shortage of guide dogs across the UK. Guide Dogs, the largest dog breeder in the world – the charity’s’ first brood bitch was bought in 1959 – has had to turn to external dog breeders to ensure there are enough dogs in the breeding and training programmes.
Hundreds of people needing replacement dogs are on waiting lists – it’s up by 25%. In 2020, 282 partnerships were trained. Only 385 partnerships were created in 2021. In 2019 guide dog owners in the UK faced an average wait of almost a year between their guide dog retiring and receiving a new dog. The average wait is now 18 months.
‘Guide dog delays are like ‘losing eyesight all over again’ – an owner who was advised she might have to wait years for a new guide dog.
Currently we’re playing the waiting game. Both my partner and I have been waiting much longer than the national average for replacement dogs. I’m one of the 29% who so far has waited between 1 and 2 years and my partner is one of those 8% who has waited more than 2 years.
Not only did I lose a working dog in the prime of his life during lockdown but my partner’s retired guide dog lost a member of her pack. We hope she will have a long healthy and happy retirement and the opportunity to know our new working dogs. We want her to live on in the traits and mannerisms, which we hope our new dogs will copy just as she adopted some of the habits of her predecessor.
I don’t want to give too many identifying personal details because I’m worried that Guide Dogs might remove my name from the waiting list. Having a guide dog is totally different to using a long cane. Not long after I lost my guide dog, I had a serious fall when my cane became stuck and my momentum took me flying over it. I was wearing sunglasses and I landed on my forehead. My face was a bloody bruised mess for weeks and I am now scarred for life.
‘It took around a year after my dog retired for my cane skills to return to where they were previously’. One owner’s comments after having a guide dog for eight years.
I have setup this forum so guide dog owners, supporters and friends of Guide Dogs can discuss their concerns about the future of the charity.
I’m just interested in helping Guide Dogs address their mission creep, involving guide dog owners in the strategic decisions that influence the breeding, training and supply of healthy top quality guide dogs.
The time has come for guide dog owners to take more responsibility rather than just be the passive recipients of Guide Dog services. Guide dog owners understand the practical day-to-day effects of having a visual impairment on daily life, which social care and Guide Dog professionals don’t necessarily understand. Guide dog owners are able to understand and identify the gaps in services.
I have started this campaign ‘Owners take the Lead’ because I don’t think I’m the only owner who…
‘I am finding this waiting game very trying. I was using a guide dog for more than 35 years. I have found using a long cane really difficult as I am deaf in one ear, and cannot walk a straight line; I either keep close to the kerb, a tad dangerous, or the shore line, also a bit dangerous given the amount of street furniture, variation in boundary walls and overhanging foliage.’.
‘Owners take the Lead’ was founded in May 2022, in despair at the direction that the Guide Dogs management had been taking during the last twenty years, culminating in its profoundly misguided response to Covid. There have been too many rebrands, and strategies that guide dog owners can’t identify with. There has been mission creep with Guide Dogs moving into areas best left to the ‘sight loss’ charities founded specifically to provide these services. After 90 years it is time for guide dog owners to lead the organisation that breeds and trains their dogs.