COVID-19 and Guide Dogs

Guide Dogs has produced a video to explain ‘the massive impact of the pandemic, and to justify suspending their breeding programme. Interestingly, no guide dog owners feature in this video — just dogs, staff and puppy raisers (formerly known as puppy walkers).

Had there been more staff members who are guide dog owners, especially in senior positions within the organisation, other solutions that reduced the subsequent massive impact on owners may have been found, as creative problem-solving is part of a Disabled Person’s DNA.

Guide Dogs training was suspended when the first lockdown was imposed. 55 partnerships were affected. It has been hard to determine exactly how long training was suspended for, and whether the impact of lockdowns differed between training regions.

At the beginning of the pandemic Guide Dogs forecast a significant drop in fundraising revenue, so early on in the crisis the fundraising team took the decision to dramatically increased their TV advertising budget This move meant that Guide Dogs were able to maintain levels of awareness and lead to a record-breaking fundraising year.

Instead of face-to-face support, Guide Dogs set up a telephone support system and made thousands of calls to owners. I must admit that I did receive a call, but the focus was on my dog’s welfare and not mine. Was I able to ensure my dog was exercised? Did I have any dog food supply problems? Had I made any arrangements in case I had to access emergency veterinary care? As a responsible guide dog owner, I had all three covered. Sadly, during lockdown I had to arrange for emergency veterinary care, immediately prior to the loss of my working dog.

Guide Dogs acknowledged that “for anyone with a vision impairment there would be a deeper sense of crisis” and that many people would become more isolated in their own homes with little or no support.

On the 10th May a conditional plan for lifting lockdown was announced and people who couldn’t work from home could return to the workplace but avoid public transport. At this point you would have expected puppy raisers to get their puppies back into their cars. Non-essential shops reopened on the 16th June at which point puppies could get back to training in high streets. On the 4th more restrictions were eased in England, including the reopening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, although there were local lockdowns in Leicester and parts of Leicestershire. Then on the 3rd August the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ began. Lockdown restrictions were eased further on the 14th August. A month later the ‘Rule of six’ was introduced.

Many, if not most guide dog owners, weren’t considered vulnerable so we still had to go out with our dogs to shop for essentials. Our dogs certainly noticed the differences but they adapted. For example, my guide dog figured out social distancing in queues. There were periods when we couldn’t take our dogs into cafes but we bought takeaway coffees and sat in the middle of the town centre to drink them. There may not have been the traffic or the opportunities to use public transport, but our dogs had lots of new physical barriers and plenty of off-kerb practice. Working dogs adapted to lockdowns and adjusted again to things opening up, increasing traffic and getting back on public transport.

Prior to the pandemic Guide Dogs had two training models – hotel based and domiciliary. Most training takes place outdoors. Lectures on dog health, behaviour, playing, toys, grooming etc. could have been covered online. Over twenty years ago the charity used long leads and walkie talkies. As training progresses GDMIs drop back further and further as partnerships bond. The hybrid model of working was embedded in the practices of a GDMI so the move to remote working was surely possible. At the beginning of the pandemic Guide Dogs was in a better position than many other charities to continue delivering a mobility training service, albeit limited.

During the pandemic, Guide Dogs took a conscious decision to protect the charity’s assets, whereas other charities, feeling that the pandemic was a crisis, used their reserves when necessary to find new ways to develop and deliver services. It is unclear whether any staff were furloughed or what other measures Guide Dogs undertook to reduce spending during the pandemic.

Some national charities totally changed their operations within a couple of weeks. Some realised very quickly that the pandemic afforded opportunities as well as massive challenges. Most realised that things were never quite going to “return to normal” hence the need to be able to adapt. Guide Dogs opted for a ‘wait and see’ policy, so it is hardly surprising that there are guide dog shortages and lengthy waiting lists. It wasn’t as if they weren’t warned during the first lockdown.

Guide Dogs suspended the breeding programme. Again, it has been difficult to determine how long for and why? Unsurprisingly there is a shortage of puppies to train as guide dogs and the charity is turning to external breeders to help address the shortfall.

Guide Dogs also stopped spaying dogs during the pandemic and again it is unclear why however this again has exacerbated the shortage of dogs suitable for training.

These decisions have led to longer waiting lists for guide dogs and waits of two years and longer for replacement dogs at a time when many of us have a greater need for a dog. It is cruel to have the liberty of movement and independence that a guide dog gives you taken away for years.

It would have been great if Guide Dogs had used the COVID-19 pandemic to look at how they could get service users involved in shaping the charity’s strategy. The pandemic provided an opportunity to strip back the charity to only focus on delivering core services to the very highest standards. Guide Dogs has grown into a large organisation that has lost sight of its original mission.

COVID-19 was ‘a life-changing event’ for many guide dog owners and our lives won’t return to ‘normal’.
At the end of 2018 every member of the Guide Dogs executive board was new and the marketing and fundraising directorships had broken up. This may explain why, unlike other charities, Guide Dogs failed to pivot during the pandemic and continued to deliver core services.

Guide Dogs said there are still a “huge number of people that don’t get the support that they need, either from the state, or from society”. This is true, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are other charities who were created to support the wider visually impaired community.