Waiting times for a guide dog can be as long as two years, as the number of puppy training volunteers declines.
Now the sight-loss charity Guide Dogs, which has helped more than 36,000 blind and visually impaired people since 1931 in the UK, is calling for dog lovers to help train puppies to ensure more matches can be made.
The charity has eight regional centers across the country and 14 community centres, one of which is at Turkey Mill, in Maidstone.
However, Covid and lockdown have seen a huge dip in the number of volunteers on the organisation’s books, so much so that in March, 43 puppies were in need of a foster home.
There are currently 216 people in the South East waiting to get an assistance dog, with the average waiting time hitting 16 months, but this can be longer depending on a person’s needs.
Guide Dogs hopes to recruit more than 100 new volunteers in the South East by the end of the year.
Known as Puppy Raisers, volunteers look after a dog’s needs in its infancy between 12 and 16 months. Across the region, there are 185 puppies currently associated with a foster carer.
Samantha Doe, 36, from Snodland, is a Puppy Development Advisor for the charity and looks after the day-to-day demands on volunteers.
She said: “With puppy raising, it’s quite a full-on job as you have a puppy in your home 24/7.
“What we look for really is someone who is able to dedicate some time to the puppies but also get them out to lots of different places: like going to train stations, going in the car and going shopping.
“Really, we want to establish a good foundation for these puppies to progress and go on to be good guide dogs.”
Two such volunteers are Margaret Mardell, 73, from Burleigh Close, Strood, and Justine Price, 54, from Granary Court Road, Smeeth, Ashford.
Margaret has been with the charity for 12 years and has seen all 10 puppies qualify for guiding.
Justine has volunteered for seven years and had two out of seven successfully become working dogs.
Margaret said: “Our job really is to develop their potential and give these dogs as many experiences as we can within our capabilities.
“It takes a lot of patience, commitment, perseverance and empathy because all pups are different.
“You might be tearing your hair out sometimes but it’s an extremely rewarding thing to do and once you’ve done one, it’s very hard not to do another.”
Justine said: “We start basic training with them like where to go to the toilet and simple puppy commands and then slowly build from there with the idea being that they get used to day-to-day life.
“Our main purpose is to socialize them and get them ready for the environment that, as a working dog, they will encounter.”
The puppies are meant to merge with a volunteer’s lifestyle and accompany them through all walks of life. Some even take the dogs to work.
Puppy Development Advisors monitor a dog’s progress every month until it is ready to go off to training camp where they will learn skills to guide.
Once the puppies reach that time, they leave their Puppy Raisers and head to a new foster home near one of the training facilities.
The nearest one in Kent is Turkey Mill in Maidstone – others nearby include Redbridge in London, Reading and Brighton.
How long it takes for a puppy to be fully trained depends on its temperament but a dog tends to pass training at an average age of two years old.
These dogs go off to do incredible jobs but giving them up is not without its heartbreak.
Justine said: “It’s a horrible day when you have to give them back, but you have to remember it’s not your dog.
“You only borrow them for a year and then you have to give them back, you’re not giving them up and you know they’re going off to do something wonderful.
“When they do pass, and you see them working it’s like a proud mummy moment like when your kid’s graduate university.”
Sometimes, the new owners of the fully trained dogs keep in touch with the raisers to let them know how their puppies are doing.
Margaret said: “One of my dogs is with a young girl who has gone to university and she said to me she would have never been able to achieve that without the support of the dog going in with her every day.
“To hear that from a young person is lovely.”
One of Margaret’s dogs even witnessed a royal visit.
She said: “My first dog met the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall.
“Her owner worked in a factory making Remembrance poppies and the Queen and Camilla visited at separate times.
“My dog met them and now I have a lovely photo of the Queen patting my dog.”
Justine has also had many of her dogs venture into different walks of life.
She said: “One, Scouter, was sponsored by a local scout group.
“We went to their camp and while there he got invested into the group and so he now has his own little scarf and woggle.”
Puppy Raisers are reimbursed the cost of looking after a guide puppy with the only expenses asked to come out of the volunteer’s pocket are a bed for the dog, its food and drink bowls and toys and treats they wish to give it.
Without the help of the volunteers, Guide Dogs could not help as many people as they do to live a life with a new seeing eye companion.
Samantha added: “We aren’t looking for the perfect puppy nor are we looking for the perfect Puppy Raiser.
“We want people from all walks of life.
“Our pups will be going to all walks of life too so it’s good for them to grow in all different sorts of backgrounds as we don’t know where they’re going to end up.
“If you see any of our puppy raisers out and about, do have a chat with them.
“They will give you a lot of information about the role and how you can help if you decide to do it also.”
Current figures show it costs £55,000 to raise a guide dog from birth to retirement and 60% of potential pups go on to qualify to be fully fledged guide dogs.
Guide Dogs rely on charitable donations for a lot of their funding and are always looking for new volunteers to step up.
More information can be found on their website.