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A high note for guide dogs

Owner: ken brydon, from cork

Animal: corrie, a golden retriever who is training to be a guide dog

Background: ken is the operations manager of the irish guide dogs for the blind training centre

Ken is originally from Scotland and worked for Guide Dogs in the UK for 20 years. He moved to Ireland in 2000, bringing skills and ideas to share. The Irish Guide Dog centre in Cork is like a small hotel, offering food and accommodation to up to 15 visitors at any one time. There are 60 staff, including 16 full-time dog trainers and instructors.

The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is a national charity, founded in 1976, with the aim of helping people with impaired vision by offering them the company and assistance of trained guide dogs. In recent years, the charity has reached out to include families of children with autism, allowing them to achieve improved mobility and independence with the help of trained assistance dogs.

The centre trains more than 40 new dogs every year. A wide range of training programmes are offered; the dogs themselves are trained here and the new owners learn how to handle their dogs by attending residential courses. All training, aftercare and support is free of charge to the users, but the programme costs around €1.1m per annum to run. Most of the charity's income comes from public donations.



focus

The main focus of the centre is the careful production of trained guide dogs. This starts with the selection of the ideal parent dogs. Irish Guide Dogs works with sister organisations in North America and Europe, picking out dogs that have the best combination of health, temperament and intelligence.

Pedigrees are scrutinised carefully, often mixing breeds such as Labradors, poodles and golden retrievers to produce cross-bred animals that are bred specifically for the demanding requirements of their role.

The newly pregnant brood bitches are sent to private homes for the pregnancy and whelping. Ken's team is available to help if there are difficulties, but usually, all goes well.

The newborn pups don't come back to the centre until they're six weeks old: the natural environment of a family home is the best place for them until then. They spend the first weeks of their lives becoming well socialised, surrounded by the normal activities of households.

At six weeks of age, the pups return to the Cork centre for two weeks of careful checks, before heading out to stay with "puppy walkers". These dedicated volunteers look after the young dogs in their own homes until they're just over a year old. At this stage, the dogs return to the centre, where they spend six to nine months in intensive training, being taught their future roles either to help visually impaired people or to assist autistic children.



matched

The last stage of the process happens when the dogs are nearly two years old. The trained dogs are matched to their new owners; the new team of human and dog is given joint lessons in working together before heading back to the dog's new and permanent home.

Like all charities in this economic downturn, the Irish Guide Dogs is suffering from a serious funding crisis. Fundraising branches are working hard all over the country, with individuals doing their best, but it's not easy in the current climate.

One of the latest initiatives is a link with Cork City -- the Jazz Festival, taking place at the end of October, has nominated Irish Guide Dogs as their main beneficiary. A new car is being raffled at the festival, with tickets available at €5 each: call 021 487 8200 to buy some. Ken loves his work with the Guide Dogs, but he's worried about the future. Can you help?