In a year from now, seven-month-old golden retriever Orchid will be playing a vital role in helping a partially- sighted person go about their everyday business.
That will be largely down to the training provided by Susan and Ray Coxon.
The couple, from Long Eaton, became ‘puppy walkers’ for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association eight years ago and describe themselves as ‘full-time volunteers’.
They shared their story with the Advertiser in the hope of encouraging more people to do the same.
Though there are around 45 people in Long Eaton who are puppy walkers, there is a shortage of volunteers in Ilkeston.
Susan, 63, told the Advertiser: “The need for guide dogs is on the increase.
“We are getting older, more people are getting type two diabetes, people don’t realise it can take your sight over night.”
They have had Orchid since January when she was just seven weeks old and will have her for a total of 12 months. They have trained eight dogs in total, all of which are pictured in frames on the wall of their family home. Their favourite to date was a German shepherd called Una, who is now a guide dog to a teenager in Stoke.
“Ray took early retirement and we thought it would be nice to have a dog”, said Susan. “We had thought about it years ago but decided to have children instead.”
When their children grew up the couple decided that rather than getting a pet dog, they would begin training guide dog puppies.
Susan said: “It’s more interesting because you have to take them everywhere to get them used to everything.
“The idea is to produce a bomb-proof dog which isn’t phased by anything. She comes everywhere with us.”
Orchid’s training will see her able to lead the way up stairs, lifts, trams and trains.
“There is no reason to suggest she won’t make it through the training’, said Susan, “We knew one of the other dogs, Conrad, would be a challenge. He failed to make the grade and was turned down as a sniffer dog for the police.”
Ray, 64, who is treasurer of the Nottingham branch of the charity, said: “The whole point is they shouldn’t have a routine, some days I take her in the office with me. There might be times when she is left in the car for half an hour. They have to be used to being on their own.”
Once they leave the volunteers’ homes the puppies go on to a training centre where if they make the grade they are matched up with someone in need of a guide dog.
“It’s like leaving your children at university’, said Susan when you leave them as puppies at the centre you leave them as a working dog.
“The first dog, Charlie, was the hardest to train. You never forget them, when you hear about the client they are working with it makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s great fun, it’s not easy work but it’s rewarding and we have made loads of new friends.”
Much of the funding for the charity comes from people who have left money in wills, and two out of three guide dogs are sponsored. Last year the Nottingham branch was left £1 million in a will.
Between 1,200 and 1,500 guide dog puppies are bred every year.
A spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association said: “Our puppy walkers take in one of our adorable pups when they’re around six-weeks-old, and help to look after them until they are ready for formal training, at around 12-14 months of age.
“As a puppy walker, they’ll need to introduce our pups to everything that working life can throw at them, from navigating busy city streets to getting in cars and using public transport. It’s also important that our pups aren’t left alone for long when they’re very young. Being a puppy walker can be hard work, but our volunteers find it incredibly fulfilling to support a puppy through such an important stage of its development, and their work is vital in helping us to give people who are blind or partially sighted the freedom they deserve. People will receive support and advice throughout your time volunteering for us, and it’s a great way to meet new people as well.”
The charity is in urgent need of new volunteers in Ilkeston.
To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0845 371 7771.
You can also find more information by going to guidedogs.org.uk, and searching for ‘puppy walkers’.