International Guide Dog Day: Chief Executive of Fight for Sight and Vision Foundation celebrates Guide Dog, Dottie
On International Guide Dog Day, Keith Valentine celebrates his guide dog Dottie and explores the partnership he shares with her.
By Keith Valentine, Chief Executive Fight for Sight and Vision Foundation
Today (26 April) is International Guide Dog Day, so I’d like to celebrate my guide dog, Dottie.
Worldwide, an estimated 20,291 guide dogs are working through members of the International Guide Dog Federation, and Dottie and I are one of the thousands of partnerships in the UK. Pre-pandemic, there were around 5,000 of these, but the pandemic saw that fall to 3,695, creating a UK-wide shortage of Guide Dogs.
The shortage was due to a halt in breeding and training during the pandemic. Some whose guide dogs retired lost their independence without support. It was a double blow to many whose independence was impacted by Covid-19 and the fear surrounding social distancing (almost half, 46 per cent, reported that their mental health was worse because of Covid-19).
Training a guide dog puppy takes around 20 weeks, and Covid interrupted training.
Numbers are recovering – partly due to a BBC Documentary, which spotlighted the shortage and led to thousands volunteering to be part of the puppy training programme.
Working together in partnership
Training continues once a puppy ‘passes’ to become a guide dog and is matched to its owner because, critically, the relationship is one of partnership. Once matched, the owner and guide dog train together for four weeks. Dottie can’t guide me alone, and she relies on my commands and needs encouragement to tell her which way to go.
As for me, Dottie helps me to navigate a world that isn’t designed for people living with sight loss. She helps me to walk down the pavement, avoid obstacles, find doors and crossings and keep straight when I cross the road.
Each day, Dottie accompanies me to my role as Chief Executive of Fight for Sight and Vision Foundation, two charities merging to save sight and change lives.
It’s an exciting time as we combine missions in our new organisation.
Dottie reflects that excitement and has been seen with a bad case of ‘the zoomies’ charging around the office ] pestering staff with her slobbery ball. I can only allow Dottie that freedom because the training means I can recall her quickly.
Most of the time, you’ll find her sitting quietly in the corner of my office.
Guide Dog Etiquette – I’m working!
There is an important etiquette around interacting with guide dogs, especially when they are working. Interruptions, particularly when the dog is on a harness, are unwelcome.
Yet, a 2021 survey of guide dog owners found that 71% of guide dogs are distracted at least once a day. Dog distractions happen weekly for 24% of guide dog owners.
Interruptions can break a dog’s concentration and could result in a fall by its owner.
When asked ‘why’ they approach a guide dog, members of the public said they were impressed by the dog’s intelligence (59%) and because they find Labradors and golden retrievers particularly cute (55%).
I do get it. Dottie is adorable, and I understand why people want to pet her.
But she has an important job to do and shouldn’t be interrupted. Asking whether you can pet her is also an interruption - if you ask, and she’s working, be prepared for me to answer with a robust ‘no’.
Guide Dogs allowed?
As I said, Dottie is adorable, but she isn’t the breed most people associate with Guide Dogs. Dottie is a black labradoodle - Labradors, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds remain the most common pure breeds on the Guide Dogs programme in the UK.
Her appearance differs from what people expect in a Guide Dog. That perhaps explains but does not excuse why I have been refused entry to public areas on more than one occasion when she is with me. I’ve been denied entrance to a restaurant (despite calling ahead) a Sainsburys and kicked out of the UK’s biggest Wetherspoons.
I’m not alone. In 2022, Guide Dogs revealed 81% of guide dog owners had been refused entry to a business or service. In the 12 months before the survey, 73% of participants said they experienced an 'access refusal' because of their guide dogs.
It is illegal to refuse entry to someone because they have a guide dog.
In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act means guide dogs and other assistance dog owners have the right to enter most services, premises, and vehicles with their guide dog. In Northern Ireland, the Disability Discrimination Act gives guide dog owners the same rights.
The charity Guide Dogs launched its Open Doors campaign in response to the survey.
Opening doors for disabled people
This denial of access is an overt example of the discrimination and barriers people with sight loss face daily. However, there are others – people with sight loss face a significant employment gap, as do all disabled people. They are also more likely to have mental health issues. It’s one of many reasons I am excited to unite Vision Foundation and Fight for Sight.
Vision Foundation has a proud history of funding grants to drive social impact and running campaigns that affect change. It has worked with the intersectionality between sight loss and other social issues. For example, it’s the Unseen Campaign shone a spotlight on the increased risk of domestic violence facing people with sight loss. See My Skills sought to break the cycle of sight loss employment. We’ve also just released our latest funding opportunities to help researchers make breakthroughs that can save sight.
We’re committed to saving sight and changing lives – and Dottie will continue to be an essential part of the team – and occasionally disrupt the office.