“We never realised the difference these dogs make to people until we received a letter from a chap who had gone out and bought himself a pint of milk for the first time,” says Guide Dog Puppy Walker, Andy Lees.
When most people see a Guide Dog they see an incredibly attentive and clever companion to the visually impaired or blind person they are helping.
But what some don’t realise is the amount of training that goes in to making these dogs the life-changing aid they become.
Andy and his wife, Donna, from Preston, have helped seven dogs with their basic training – between the ages of seven weeks and 12 months – before they go back to the charity to complete the advance stage.
But when they had to hand Uska back the pair found it difficult to adjust to life without their beloved pooch and decided to draw a halt to their new profession.
“We saw an ad in the LEP for puppy walkers so applied and soon we had our first puppy – the most laid back Labrador you have ever met,” says Andy.
“But when Uska left we said never again. He was such a lovely dog.”
“It was only when we got a letter from the chap he had gone to, which was thanking us for training him up that we realised what a difference these dogs make to people.
“He told us that for the first time in 45 years he could go and get a pint of milk for himself which was just incredible.”
Now, the family, including 19-year-old Rebecca, 13-year-old Katie and 10-year-old Thomas, have been joined by Nemo, a seven-month old bundle of fun.
“Not one dog is the same,” says Andy. “Nemo, for example, is very loving and he is very close to Thomas because he just loves children.
“His ears always prick up whenever he hears them.”
Andy and Donna teach each of the puppies basic commands and help them to use lifts, steps and telephone boxes although, says Andy, “try and find a telephone box nowadays!”
“Our own dog, Bobby, doesn’t like them when they’re puppies but he gets on quite well with them when they get a bit older.
“We have to teach them to sit, stay, wait, lie down, go to the toilet on command and feed to a whistle,” says Andy. “In fact, Bobby has picked up the command about when to eat that we teach the guide dog puppies.
“He’ll sit and wait with them until we blow the whistle so it works well all round!”
Andy and Donna’s dogs have gone on to be placed in Wakefield, Sheffield, Birmingham and on the Wirral.
We have only had one who was withdrawn from the programme and now he lives with an elderly couple in Wigan.
“When the dogs go off for training we get cards after two weeks to let us know how they’re getting on and that they’re settled and we get regular phone calls.”
And once the dogs pass out, Andy and Donna receive a photograph of each of their dogs which gets pride of place on their wall at home.
Several of the photographs adorn the wall leading up the stairs in their home.
“Guide Dogs will place the dogs away from where we live because, should they see us, they could get excited and forget to do their job.
“When we went to see one of our dogs, Sparks, when he was placed in Oswestry and even though it had been some time, he still recognised us and was pleased to see us.”
As well as puppy walkers, the pair help to fund raise at the Preston branch with 45 other volunteers, holding talks on the work that Guide Dogs do at a variety of groups.
“You can imagine the response to a guide dog puppy when we visit schools!” adds Andy.
A spokesperson from Guide Dogs said: “Volunteer Puppy Walkers make an enormous difference to Guide Dogs.
“We have over 400 Volunteer Puppy Walkers in our region, each dedicating a year of their time to help raise a well-rounded puppy that will eventually become a guide dog.
“They are a vital part of our organisation and without them we would not be able to help transform the lives of blind and partially sighted people.”