Ware Guide Dogs Puppy Breeder Training for the Blind
To help deliver a truly life-changing gift, we meet a Herts guide dog puppy trainer and his special 90th anniversary mascot
“Guide dogs have a very important job to do. They will change someone’s life forever and become their guiding star. Being part of this journey is amazing.
Mel Nevel and his partner Steve, who live with their children in Thundridge near Ware, are breeders of guide dog puppies. “We love dogs and thought we’d get one, but we were keen to commit,” Mel says.
Avid charity supporters, they contacted the charity in 2019 and, after a home assessment to ensure the environment was suitable, the couple were given their first puppy, Berry.
“Anyone can be a puppy raiser,” says Mel, “but you can’t leave the dog for longer than three hours, so it’s a big commitment. If you are going to work, you must take it with you. A guide dog in training is allowed to accompany you anywhere, so our current pup, Flash, who we have had since March, goes wherever we go.
She’s been on a riverboat, taxi, subway, train, and long car journeys. She is always ready to get involved in all different environments, is very outgoing and has a fantastic recall. She will make a fabulous guide dog.
A puppy trainer’s job is to ensure that a guide dog puppy is well socialized before entering advanced training with an instructor, introducing them to new experiences – sights, sounds, smells, touch , physical movement, grooming and health check equipment, and wearing equipment such as as a harness.
These introductions are made when the puppy is in a calm and relaxed state of mind, so new things are perceived as neutral or positive.
The goal is for a puppy to gradually stop being attentive to irrelevant everyday information, such as the kettle, the boiler, the noise of traffic outside, birds in the garden or movement in a vehicle .
“Flash was seven weeks old when we got her – so that’s a lot earlier than you would get a normal pup. They need lots of love, hugs and encouragement, and you grow together.
“Twice a month we have a puppy class to teach us what to do, but it’s basically about developing a well-behaved dog with good manners and the patience to sit and wait.”
“To sit in a restaurant and not eat the chocolate cake that has fallen on the floor takes a lot of practice! There is no miracle. It’s about being consistent.
‘Flash has a big personality. She is incredibly affectionate and loves cuddles. She is so funny and makes us laugh all the time. While we were washing the car, she stuck her head in the bucket of water and came out with a soapy face. She is so curious.
The Flash made national headlines in September when she called out BBC Breakfast weather presenter Carol Kirkwood at the Chelsea Flower Show live on television, footage that quickly went viral online. “Up to that point Flash had been absolutely brilliant,” Mel laughs.
Flash was at the show in his capacity as Guide Dogs’ 90th anniversary mascot and was named after one of the charity’s first four dogs.
Flash has taken part in many events this year, including, aptly, the premiere of Paw Patrol: The Movie in Leicester Square and in a garden designed for the association’s anniversary at RHS Chelsea.
“We had stayed at a hotel the night before and it had been a long day,” says Mel.
“I stood behind the cameraman, encouraging Flash to stay with Carol, who was holding his lead. Flash found the whole thing a bit odd because I never give it to anyone else. Only Steve and I take him for walks because you have to be registered with guide dogs.
“Flash tugged on the leash, to come over to me, and Carol, who was crouching, tipped over. Everyone found it very amusing.
“Kirkwood down!” fellow presenter Dan Walker shouted gleefully into the studio.
Guide Dogs was started in 1931 by two British pioneers, Muriel Crooker and Rosamund Bond, who organized the training of Britain’s first four guide dogs – Flash, Meta, Judy and Folly – from an enclosure in Wallasey, Merseyside.
They were paired with four veterans who were blinded due to faulty gas masks during World War I. Since then, 36,000 lives have been transformed through a partnership with a guide dog.
Labradors, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds have been and remain the most common guide dogs among the program’s purebreds, but the association now also includes curly-haired retrievers and standard poodles.
Historically, the Golden Retriever crossed with Labrador has proven to be the most successful guide dog, combining many desirable traits from both breeds.
“They are bred for their temperament,” Mel explains. “They all have their DNA checked to make sure they have the right nature. They must be calm and steady, gentle, and incredibly patient, but they must also be able to move through crowds and make their presence known. They cannot be afraid.
Guide dogs stay with their puppy raisers for 14-16 months, before going on further training, when they live with a boarder and attend puppy school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until they are matched with their owner at the age of 20 to 24 months.
“There is great sadness when a puppy leaves for advanced training,” Mel admits. “It’s hard to say goodbye, but we’ve known from the start that the pup has a very important job to do.”
“We are given a two week warning, but the coach continues to give us updates on what they have achieved, so you can follow their journey along the way.”
“Berry, our first guide dog pup, who passed away in January, just qualified and I’m so proud of her. There was an overwhelming emotion when she was paired with her blind person.
For some puppies in training, being a guide dog just isn’t for them. They may have behavioral or health issues, such as a skin condition, anxiety, or joint problems.
These puppies still have a role to play, becoming “buddy dogs” – essentially very well-behaved companion dogs – for children with sight loss, to help build children’s self-confidence, improve relationships and build a greater sense of confidence.
For anyone considering becoming a puppy breeder, Mel says it’s extremely rewarding. “We’re doing it because we want to support guide dogs, and we’ve had tremendous support from the charity, so we’re not doing it alone.
“It’s a voluntary role, but Guide Dogs pays for everything from medical bills to dog food. The only thing you are giving is your time and you are part of a journey that will positively change someone’s life forever. What can be better than that?
Do you think you are a guide dog breeder? Visit guidedogs.org.uk or call 0345 1430191.