|In this article Jay Taylor describes the highs and lows of training dogs to help people with sight loss, and why she particularly likes naughty pups. Jay is a puppy training supervisor from the charity Guide Dogs. She is responsible for 37 puppies – aged between seven weeks and 14 months – who are learning the skills to enable them to become one of the thousands of life-changing guide dogs that help people living with sight loss to keep their independence and confidence.
I always wanted to work with dogs. I’ve been working with them for over 30 years, and I can’t think of anything better. I was always that annoying kid who wanted to go over and play with people’s dogs in the street, so this career is a natural fit for me.
For me, helping guide dogs is in the family. My sister in-law used to be a Guide Dogs puppy walker – a volunteer who helps with the early socialisation and education of young guide dog puppies. Through her, I met the puppy walking supervisor who was overseeing the training. We got talking and my career just went from there.
I now train Clover, the yellow labrador who is appearing on ITV’s This Morning show. She’s their resident guide dog puppy. The show is following her progress through training as she becomes qualified to help people who’ve lost their sight, so it’s amazing to see her on TV and helping to raise awareness about the training our puppies go through.
Every day is different in this job. It totally varies. I spend a lot of time visiting guide dog puppies that are currently placed with volunteer walkers. I compile objectives tailored to each puppy to ensure they’re on the right track and making good progress. Sometimes we even do group walks, which is a really great chance for puppies to get used to being around other dogs.
Do I have a favourite puppy? I’m not meant to but, if I’m honest, I like the ones that are a bit naughty as it’s more of a challenge, and then so rewarding seeing them go on to be a guide dog who will change the life of someone living with sight loss. I love the German shepherd breed in particular.
Each pup has an individual temperament and character. I love seeing how their personalities develop over the year. Although they don’t live with me, my arrival to the homes of the volunteer puppy walkers normally causes great excitement from the pups, which is lovely to see. It also helps aid their adaptability to accept and work for other people, which in turn contributes to their training and beyond.
Training the dogs to the highest standard is extremely important. We ensure that our training programmes are individually designed in order to meet the needs of the owner and the guide dog. Matching the correct dog with the correct owner takes skill and experience. The owner’s length of stride, height and lifestyle all contribute to the type of guide dog they will be matched with. Then there is four weeks of intensive training before the pair qualify as a guide dog partnership.
There’s no one size fits all when it comes to puppy training. Each pup is individual and they all have different ways and degrees of learning. To be successful you need to set realistic guidelines from day one, keeping in mind the end goal; that one day these puppies will go on to help someone with sight loss. It may be cute for an eight-week-old puppy to jump at someone for a cuddle but it is not so good when that pup weighs a lot more and can cause injury or embarrassment.
It can be tough to let go. At around 12 months most of our puppies go into full guide dog training and the volunteer puppy walker’s job is complete. It can be a difficult job to take the pup away from their puppy walker, so they can go on to full guide dog training. It’s important to be able to let go after the puppies have finished their training.
But it’s incredibly rewarding. I wouldn’t have been here for so long if I didn’t see the amazing benefits. I’ve met owners who didn’t leave their house before they had a guide dog. Seeing the way guide dogs can transform lives is so rewarding. Guide dogs offer many people living with sight loss an incredible sense of confidence, independence and freedom – as well as being a trusted companion and loyal friend to their owner.
Many people think it is the dog who makes decisions, such as when to cross the road, when in fact this responsibility lies with the owner. Our dogs are taught “intelligent disobedience”, which means they need to be confident enough to overrule a command if it is not safe to do so, such as if a car is coming. Experience with dogs is the most important thing for this career. It could be experience in any shape or form. So if you’re interested in becoming a guide dog puppy trainer, contact the Guide Dogs charity or other similar charities, and try to get some experience within those sectors.