Hard Facts and Figures
Thanks to the lack of quantitive information coming out of Guide Dogs, many rumours are circulating amongst guide dog owners.
‘Forward!’ and the Guide Dogs’ website is primarily written for donors, supporters and volunteers. The January 2022 update from a regional mobility team illustrates the problem. In order the topics covered were; new staff, volunteering, charity of the year, information for cane users, and buddy dogs. At the time this update was circulated there were over 226 people waiting for a dog in that region.
As owners, we understand the matching process. So when we get a very infrequent phone call, we don’t want some vague reassurance that we are still on the list. We want facts and figures, what level in the matching hierarchy we have reached so we can determine for ourselves how many months and years we might wait for a dog. When I was working full-time and waiting for my third dog, I saved up all my annual leave so I had the time to train with a new dog. I didn’t dare have a holiday. This year I think my chances of getting that phone call to say they might have a match are remote. If it happens then I might need to postpone or cancel a few things.
When I recently looked at the homepage of the Guide Dogs’ website, which changes from time to time, the headline proclaimed ‘Guide Dogs makes every day count for children with sight loss.’ Other charities exist to provide services for visually-impaired children and many of us born blind don’t like the term ‘sight loss’ as some people never had sight to lose.
‘I also find it frustrating that Guide Dogs appeared to have lost their focus from their core responsibilities by diversifying to include children and technology – both laudable, but not in their remit. The first phone option when you ring is to be put through to children’s services, and the first picture on their website is of a child with a dog. This to me, seems like a fundraising-led offering, rather than reflecting their core mission.’ Guide Owner for over 35 years.
The Wikipedia entry for Guide Dogs also reflects the charities services – buddy dogs and services for children and young people, for example, ‘My Time to Play’. Launched in 2020, this service comprises fun and supportive online and face-to-face sessions to help children aged 0 – 4, ‘My Life Skills’ which helps children learn invaluable practical skills for life, ‘CustomEyes Books’ providing books in large print, tailor-made to each child’s eye condition, ‘Family Events’ a UK-wide programme of activity days providing the opportunity for children and parents to meet other families and “Tech for All” launched in 2021 where Guide Dogs is piloting a scheme giving those aged 3 -18 with a vision impairment a free iPhone or iPad. Did Guide Dogs merge with a children’s charity and I missed this event? Should Guide Dogs merge with the Royal National Institute of the Blind and become the mobility training arm of the RNIB? After all the mission statements of the two charities are almost identical. One former CEO of the RNIB thought this would be difficult but a great idea.
Accusations about mission creep at Guide Dogs are not new. When Geraldine Peacock became CEO of ‘the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) in 1998, she found an organisation with healthy reserves of £196m but an annual deficit of £10m on income of some £36m. With a client group of only 5,000 guide dog owners, the charity had been criticised for not using its resources to benefit more visually impaired people. Around 80%, or £29m, of its annual income was from legacies, while voluntary income was just £6m. Meanwhile, its leisure activities for visually impaired people were losing more than £2m a year.’
At the time, Peacock described the charity as suffering from ‘mission drift’. From its early roots as a guide dog breeding and training organisation, GDBA had mushroomed into a multi-focused charity running two hotels and a holiday programme, providing training for those working with visually impaired people and funding human ophthalmic and canine health research.
Dog Charity or Charity for Visually Impaired People?
Geraldine Peacock also proposed the question: Is Guide Dogs an animal charity or a charity for visually impaired people?
Now we have ‘Good Dog’ – a 12-month subscription service run by Guide Dogs for the general public. The experts at Guide Dogs were keen to get into the ‘subscription product market’ so they created the ideal subscription package ‘to make life with your dog, a walk in the park!’. The idea is to reveal the secrets to what makes guide dogs so well-behaved, as well as using Guide Dogs’ 90 years of canine experience to provide pet owners with training advice, easy to follow videos treats and wellbeing tips and generate income for the charity.
Instead of designing this service it may have been the time to involve experienced guide dog owners in the training and socialising of their replacement dogs. Over time owners do become experienced trainers as we are reinforcing training every time we work with our dogs. How could guide dog owners help to reduce waiting times and increase the number of partnerships created?
In the UK there is no alternative guide dog training organisation. The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), an industry-elected body responsible for the development, monitoring and evaluation of the standards applied within all IGDF-member organisations worldwide only make the full IGDF standards available to IGDF members, applicant organisations, enquiring organisations and affiliate organisations. It can take many years for a new organisation to achieve the required standards, which will enable them to become an IGDF Member. Effectively it’s a closed shop.
The rights of guide dog owners under legislation such as the Equality Act is linked to their dogs being assessed and the dog’s behaviour meeting the standards of the IGDF. (I don’t know how my first dog passed but she was retired within a year.) If the standards are not public and there is no independent assessment process visually impaired people can’t train their own guide dogs as these dogs wouldn’t have access rights to public places and public transport.
No Longer In The Picture
‘The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association’ is known colloquially as just ‘Guide Dogs’. Guide Dogs rebranded in 2019. I’m not quite sure how rebranding helps a charity to double its reach, considering the typical costs of a rebrand. It was the second time Guide Dogs have rebranded since I’ve been an owner. Gone is the stylised symbol of a person with a guide dog, replaced by a paw print!
Am I alone in thinking that ‘Buddy dogs’ are very expensive pet dogs for visually impaired people, who for some reason can’t have a guide dog? I feel that the introduction of the “buddy dog” scheme cheapens the Guide Dogs’ brand. Although the introduction of the scheme has made it easier to re-home dogs that didn’t make the grade.
The other advantage of ‘buddy dogs’ is a way of postponing when young people can apply to train with a guide dog. I was furious to see the placement of “buddy dogs” took precedence over restarting the creation of guide partnerships after the pandemic. I appreciate it is easier to place a “buddy dog” than it is to train a guide dog but should you do the easy stuff first?