Thursday, 17 November 2016

A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

My daughter has a new friend who is visually impaired. She is easy and comfortable with him. Puts herself in his shoes. At least, knows to read him out the descriptions of the different flavours of Quality Street, not just pass him the box. She’s also started asking me to lead her while she walks all the way home from school with her eyes closed.

So when I recently found out you could visit (for free) the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre near Leamington Spa – which includes a ‘sensory tunnel’ where you briefly experience life without sight – it couldn’t have been better timing.

Our tour guides are Mary, from Cumbria, full of warmth, humour, snippets and stories...
...and Holly, a gentle brood bitch labrador-retriever, pregnant with her third litter of future guide dogs. My daughter and her friend can’t keep their hands off her! And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
They are going to take us around the centre and show us the whole Guide Dog ‘production line’ (output: up to 1,500 dogs a year!) – from pre-whelping (ante-natal in human terms) to the seven-week-old puppies who are ready to leave the centre and begin their socialization programme.

We do, however, politely bypass the “honeymoon suite” where the stud dogs and brood bitches do their thing – though Mary gives us an Adult Only aside: “They can choose whether to do it indoors or al fresco, and there’s a special rubber grippy floor and a grass mound – you know, for optimum positoning!” she winks.

Now I am itching to take you on a step-by-step blog post tour of the centre and blurt out every single fascinating fact we learnt – but as that would spoil your visit should you go, I will just give you a little taster and limit myself to: 


1. A pregnant bitch spends the week before giving birth in a luxury suite with hydrotherapy and a 24-hour personal nurse in a bedsit next to her. (Note to self: In my next life, have my babies here!)

2. Each newborn puppy is marked with a splodge of pink nail varnish on a different part of its body so the carers can tell them apart.

3. Guide Dogs are trained to be spacially aware UPWARDS as well as forwards and sideways – so they will warn their owner, for example, if they are going to hit their head on the ceiling!

4.Guide Dogs are trained to obey their owner but DISOBEY if they think they know better than their owner. e.g. they can see a car is coming!

5.It costs 50p to get a Guide Dog (a token amount for paperworky reasons) but the cost of a Guide Dog from birth to retirement is £50,000!

And one unfun fact: 
By 2050 there will be twice as many visually impaired people because of the rise of macular degeneration.

When we get to have a go in the sensory tunnel, we are given special blindfolds to put on. “They allow you to open your eyes behind them,” explains Mary, “to make your brain think you should be able to see.” 
Then we go, alone, one by one, through the tunnel in total darkness. There are traffic noises and different surfaces underfoot. 
“That was fun!” says my daughter as she emerges from the other end. “But scary. It makes you realize how utterly difficult life is if you can’t see.”

An educational day out, for sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that a huge part of the appeal for the girls was the Cuteness Factor.
“Even if you didn’t like dogs,” I overhear my daughter’s friend saying, “There’s no way you could look at those puppies and not think they were adorable.” She’s not wrong. I’m no dog lover and my heart’s turned to mushy peas.

And there’s a final bonus: Complimentary tea or squash and home-made cake – donations welcome, but no pressure to do so (the cynic in me had expected we might be pushed into signing up for a monthly direct debit!).
We leave full of red velvet cake, knowledge, empathy, appreciation of our sight – and awe for these very special creatures.

“I used to think when I saw a Guide Dog, you just put a harness on them and off they go,” said my daughter on the way home.”I didn’t know how much intense time and effort and money went into them.”

Then she reverts to a more basic side of herself. “Mummy, PLEEEEEASE can I have a puppy?”

Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre's website here. You can also do a tour of the National Guide Dog Training School in Leamington Spa. 


  1. What a great experience with your children, and a real eye opener as you say. #fabfridaypost

  2. Such a cool and unique experience.


  3. Wow! I had no idea that obtaining a guide dog is such a long process. What a great experience for your little girl and me also. Thank you so much for joining us on #FabFridayPost xx

  4. This is such a great idea to help raise awareness of the incredible job these dogs and their trainers do x

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  6. This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses. diamond naturals dog food reviews