They are the furry companions who help hundreds of blind people across Scotland, now volunteers are needed to help train the next generation of guide dogs.
Guide Dogs Scotland help 530 people with sight loss live their lives, every day. The 72-year-old charity is completely funded through donations and receives no government funding.
A single guide dog costs around £50,000 to train up from a pup and Guide Dog Scotland relies on volunteer puppy walkers to train them for service to the visually impaired.
The puppies are given to a foster family for full-time care and education from six weeks old until they are between 12 and 14 months.
Puppy walkers prepare the pooches for basic training as well as familiarising them with different environments, including at home, in town and with public transport.
The dogs are then assessed for suitability as a guide dog before beginning formal training at the Forfar training school.
Carol McDonald, an Edinburgh based puppy walker who has been taking on puppies for five years was inspired to do so through her experiences with sight loss in her own family.
“My great aunt was registered blind. I was only five at the time when her friend got a registered blind dog and I saw my aunt was stuck in the house and couldn’t really go anywhere on her own.
“Her friend seemed to be able to go everywhere and do everything with this guide dog, so that was what made me want to do it.
“I’m on puppy number seven. I haven’t done it for as long as seven years as I sometimes do two at a time.
A lot of people think that it sounds like a good idea, but the reality of it is maybe a bit different. People see you prancing about with a puppy in a supermarket and think that’s a great idea, but it is a huge commitment.Carol McDonald
Carol explain that the training begins immediately.
She said: “We start training from the day we get it. Obviously when they’re little, it’s just simple things - house training and basic behaviour training.
“Then as they get a bit older we start to do more - take them into restaurants and cafes, take them on trains, buses, to the cinema and theatre - kind of just anywhere people might go.
“They come to the gym with me.”
Although it sounds like fun and games, taking on a Puppy Walker role is a big responsibility.
“You don’t know who your dog is going to go to, you don’t know what kind of life they’re going to have. You try to cover everything so that they’ve done it before.
“Some of the dogs go to work with someone. My last dog, the man is a physiotherapist, so the dog’s in work with him.
“I always try to get the dogs into an office when they’re a bit older, to spend a few days so they get used to that.
“We just kind of introduce them to life.
“It is a big commitment - you’ve got to think about everything. If you’re going out, you can’t leave them for hours on end. You’ve either got to work around it or get someone to look after them.”
Despite training numerous dogs over the years, after the training is completed and it comes time to give the puppy back it never gets any easier.
Carol explains: “I find it hard to give the dogs back every single time. I had one that was a really big presence, well behaved, but you knew he was there.
“I would say out of any of them, he was the hardest one to give away. He was such a good looking dog, everybody admired him. He was a lovely natured dog too. He’s probably been the hardest - but they’re all hard.
“You have them for a year and you do bond with them, and although you say ‘It’s not my dog, I’m not going to get too attached’, you can’t look after one and not get attached.”
Despite the difficulties in saying goodbye, training a guide dog can be a rewarding experience and volunteers play a pivotal role in Guide Dog Scotland’s operations.
If you are interested in discussing a volunteering opportunity, please call Emma Murton at the Edinburgh team on 0118 983 8703 or email Emma.Murton@guidedogs.org.uk or Rubina Shah at the Glasgow team on 0118 983 8123 or email. Rubina.Shah@guidedogs.org.uk