When people and dogs work together, wonderful things can be achieved. One lady and a dog are changing people’s lives – Meet Nikki and Monty.
Dogs are universally known as Man’s Best Friend. George Bernard-Shaw summed up our relationship with dogs beautifully:
“If you eliminate smoking and gambling, you will be amazed to find that almost all an Englishman’s pleasures can be, and mostly are, shared by his dog.”
My dogs are my companions, my best friends and my family. We do stuff together. We sometimes just do nothing together. They listen to me rambling on. They don’t judge. They just love.
However, there are many dogs who are far more than companions. There are dogs with jobs! And when a dog has a job, it is almost always a very important job that makes our lives better.
This week, we are talking with a wonderful lady called Nikki who is has the interesting and rewarding job of working with trainee Guide Dogs. Read on to find out what Nikki does and to hear about Monty the puppy who is training to become a Guide Dog.
Hi Nikki – Please can you tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Nikki and I am a 50 year old ex teacher. I live in a village in the New Forest with my husband – who is a university lecturer. We have two children, both studying at university. I run most days and I enjoy working in the garden and being on the beach. Once I left teaching I was looking to fulfil a volunteering role and just stumbled across the role of Puppy Walker for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. I had never owned a dog before but something drew me towards the advert! I applied and had a series of meetings, house visits and an interview. And the rest – as they say – is history.
Puppy Walker does sound like a dream job! Can you tell us about Monty?
Monty is the current love of my life! He joined our family at 8 weeks of age. His first night with us was his first night away from the rest of his litter. He arrived with a piece of blanket that had been with him since birth so that he had a comforting smell and feel with him. For me it was love at first sight! He slept through from day one – which I know doesn’t always happen! Having a small puppy to look after is akin to having a baby.
What sort of dog is Monty?
He is a very handsome Labrador retriever cross. Monty is now a very large dog for his age – nearly a year old now – and dwarfs the other puppies at puppy class who are a similar age. He has been a wonderful dog to train as he generally wants to please and to do the right thing – probably because there is food involved as positive praise!
However, he does have a cheeky side to him – which I love – and he can be naughty at times. When he thinks I’m not looking or when he decides he’s not getting enough attention, he will pinch slippers and run away with them, or put a paw on the sofa whilst giving you a sly look!
But those are the very traits that make him the wonderful puppy that he is. As he is a retriever cross, he is VERY motivated by food! His favourites are cheese and liver pate that is made specifically for dogs.
He sounds like a fantastic dog! What traits do you think will make him a great Guide Dog?
One of the traits that will make him an excellent Guide Dog is his willingness to please. He seems to love working and training and doing what I ask him to. Monty has always been very alert and keen to see what’s going on around him. Also, his cheekiness will lighten the day for his new owner. He does sometimes show a stubborn streak which will again benefit him. For example, when he does qualify, his owner may ask him to cross a road but may not see or hear an approaching vehicle that Monty has spotted. He will then have to be able to disobey his owner and not cross the road in order to keep them both safe.
Wow – that is quite a complex thing to train a dog to do. So, what happens next for Monty?
Sometime between 12-14 months, the guide dog puppies go in to Advance Training. They either go and live in kennels at a Guide Dog Centre or go to a training centre from 9-5 Monday to Friday and live with another boarder the rest of the time. If they are in kennels, they are always put with another dog so they don’t get lonely! They spend about 8 months on this intense training with very experienced trainers. When they are ready, they then spend some time being paired up with their future owner. All sorts of things are taken into account at this stage, including the personality of the dog and the future owner. Then a Guide Dog trainer will spend time with the potential owner and Guide Dog to make sure that they will get on together and the partnership is right.
That is pretty intensive training, but it is such an important job. Do all the trainee dogs make the grade?
At any time during their training, the puppies and dogs can be withdrawn if it’s felt that they will not make the grade. There are many reasons that they can be withdrawn from the programme such as developing a sensitivity to loud noises, not being able to concentrate in certain situations, not consistently toileting on command etc. However, there is a 70% success rate. There is a possibility that a dog withdrawn from our training programme can then follow a training programme in order to become another type of service dog – e.g. police sniffer dog, assistance dog etc.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you got involved with The Guide Dog Association?
As mentioned previously, I became involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind by finding an advert for a Puppy Walker on a volunteering website about 18months ago. After I had applied, had my interview, meetings and house checks, I then had to wait for the phone call to tell me that a litter had been born. What an eternity that was!
I can imagine – It must have been very exciting! What training and preparation do you need to be a puppy walker?
We attend special Guide Dog puppy classes once a fortnight and have an A4 folder with instructions! Also our Guide Dog Puppy Supervisor visits regularly. When I first had Monty, visits were weekly. Now they are much less frequent. However, there is a great community out there – not only others who we attend puppy classes with, but also an online community and a host of other puppy walkers and boarders. We have a puppy play date every week with another Guide Dog puppy who lives about 20mins away from where we do.
You definitely have a great support network. Is Monty your only Guide Dog puppy?
At the moment we have Barlett who is an 8 month old Guide Dog puppy staying with us for a week. He is black and a Labrador cross but has much shorter legs than Monty! That was very evident when they were chasing each other in the forest! Having two puppies creates its own challenges as they must have at least one training walk each day which must be on their own! But the free runs on the beach, in the forest or over the fields are so much more fun with two! I have boarded 3 other puppies so far and have another arriving on Sunday overnight. Betty is 11 months and a yellow Labrador. Monty is our first Guide Dog puppy.
It sounds fun, but quite a commitment. What else does being a puppy walker involve?
A Puppy Walker is rather like being a first time parent all over again but the growth and behaviours are speeded up! So just as you’ve cracked the daytime ‘spending routine’ (going to the toilet on command, when and where the puppy walker decides) the chewing and teething begins. Then a few weeks later when that has sorted itself out, the puppy suddenly becomes interested in anything and everything that moves when on a training walk. So you work hard on that and he becomes more focused on the Puppy Walker again.
The following days / weeks will see many different challenges. It is a full time job without a doubt and although his food, equipment and vets bills are all covered, our time is voluntarily given. It is a huge but very rewarding commitment.
When did Monty come to live with you?
Monty was delivered to me by our Guide Dog Puppy Supervisor when he was 8 weeks old. The puppies usually stay with their mum in her home where they were born until they go to their Puppy Walkers. But Monty’s mum was unable to care for her puppies so after 6 weeks they went to the breeding centre to be cared for until they were old enough to leave at 8 weeks. The litter stayed together all this time.
Who chose Monty’s name?
Each litter is given a letter of the alphabet and the puppies are named with names beginning with their breed letter. Unless they are sponsored – as Monty is – then the sponsor chooses any name they like. To differentiate between the puppies when they are first born, each puppy is marked with a colour ‘paint’ on either front or back, right or left leg and they are referred to as such. For example Monty was purple right fore!
Ha! I think ‘Monty’ suits him much better! Can you describe a typical day with Monty?
A typical day now is very different from a typical day when he was younger. Now, we get up at about 7am – later if we’re lucky, earlier if we’re not! I take Monty straight out into the garden to his spending area for him to go on command. He does not have his collar or lead on at this time and walks by my left side to the heel command. He usually goes back to bed for half an hour or so whilst I potter in the kitchen. Then it’s breakfast time. Once his food is ready – dried biscuits with water on them – he is asked to sit and wait. I put his food down a few metres away from where he is sitting.
He has learnt to wait until he hears 3 blows on the whistle before he can have his food. He then walks to his bowl and wolfs it down as quickly as he can!
Hence the water to help him slow down. I can leave him in the kitchen now and go out of sight and he will still not approach his bowl until he hears the whistle. As you can imagine, that took a lot of training!
Why do you use a whistle?
The idea behind the whistle feeding is that when Monty is out for a free run with his blind or partially sighted owner and he hears the whistle blown 3 times, he will associate that sound with food and will immediately return to his owner. We are on about a 95% success rate at the moment!
Amazing! I can’t say that my boys are that disciplined! So what happens after breakfast?
He has learnt that I leave him alone for a while to go and have a shower and get dressed. He found this very hard to accept for a long time and used to cry at the bottom of the stairs. We have a stair gate at the bottom of the stairs as he is not allowed upstairs. If his Guide Dog Owner wants him to go upstairs that’s obviously fine but it’s easier to ban the puppies from upstairs and bedrooms from the beginning than to allow them and then have to retrain them at a later date.
That makes sense. What else happens in a typical day?
Next in his day will be another visit to the spending area to toilet on command. Then we go for a training walk to the shops, a ride on a bus or train, a visit to the library, a walk up to school on the school run or something so we can practice his skills and hone in on any that need working on. This might be something like ignoring people in a busy place or improving confidence getting on and off trains or maybe practicing patience on a hospital visit with my elderly mum! There is a whole world out there that he needs to have experienced.
In the afternoon, we may go on another training walk – depending how hard he has had to work in the morning. Or, we may just play at home and practice some obedience or go for a free run.
He is only allowed 3 or maybe 4 free runs a week but like any dog, he loves them! I do too!
So it is a pretty busy day for both of you and there is so much for him to learn! How do you spend your evenings?
He has dinner between 6pm and 7pm. The routine for this is the same as breakfast. Sometimes I will put some cream cheese, grated cheese, carrot, potato peeling or special dog pate or marmite in with his dinner to spice things up a bit for him. We avoid giving him much human food so he does not associate cooking and humans eating with being fed himself so he won’t beg or make a nuisance of himself at mealtimes. Another hard one for a foody Labrador! All throughout the day, he will be given regular opportunities to ‘spend’ when I tell him to. We haven’t quite got this sorted but we’re working on it!
Nikki, this sounds like loads of work, but incredibly rewarding. What do you love about being a puppy walker?
I love the fact that I will have played a very small part of changing a blind or partially sighted person’s life for the better. I have loved the companionship and the challenges. I had never owned a dog before Monty came to stay so it was a steep learning curve! To be honest when he leaves me next month to go into Advanced Training, he will leave a huge hole. But I will continue to board Guide Dog puppies and after a rest, may even be a Puppy Walker for another potential Guide Dog.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a guide dog puppy walker?
I used to be in teaching and I would say that this volunteering role carries similar rewards to helping a child learn to read or understand numbers. The dog becomes very much the focus in your house. It is the biggest commitment I have ever made to any living thing outside of my family.
Apart from the few hours a week I work when my husband is with Monty, he goes everywhere with me. Sometimes it’s not very convenient but that’s what I signed up for so that’s what I do.
For example, on a night out with friends in the pub I have to make sure Monty has been to the toilet, has something to distract him – toys or a bone – stays quiet and tucked under the table and also make sure that other people don’t disturb him. This is so he gets used to the fact that he may be in a busy noisy place but he has to ignore all of that and focus on his owner and their needs. Initially, he could not be left on his own at all, apart from the night. We have slowly built this up and he can now be left and be happy for up to 4 hours. We have friends who do not like dogs so we can only go and stay with them when we board Monty out.
That really drives home what a huge commitment it is to be a puppy walker but it sounds like you have a great bond with him.
Monty is definitely my best friend. The bond we have is so strong. In fact, I collapsed in December and it was Monty who found me – despite the fact I was upstairs and he’s not allowed upstairs. On this occasion he was forgiven completely! He would not leave my side all the while the paramedics were treating me. Apparently he just lay next to me. When I came home from hospital a few days later, he was so gentle and loving. Monty is wonderful, wonderful puppy who is going to change one very lucky person’s life!
What a special dog. Thank goodness he was there when you collapsed. I hope you are better now.
Nikki, thank you so much for sharing you experiences with us. It has been absolutely fascinating. I had no idea what a huge commitment it is to be a puppy walker. You and Monty are both doing a fantastic job and changing people’s lives for the better.
There are loads of other ways to support the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, including fund-raising, donating, volunteering, campaigning or re-homing a retired or withdrawn guide dog. Visit the Guide Dogs for the Blind website to find out more. Or if you want to find out more about being a puppy walker and how to apply, visit the Guide Dog’s volunteering page.
You may also be interested in our blog post about ways to support dog and cat charities.