Harry Stringer was so upset when his dog died that he vowed he would never have another.
But being away from his favourite animals was harder than he first thought.
Within a couple of years he decided that puppy walking for Guide Dogs for the Blind would give him all the benefits of having a dog – but may ease the emotional trauma if he were ever to have to say goodbye to it.
Harry, 71, said: “I got involved because I’ve always had dogs but didn’t want have another because of the emotional wrench of having them put down. After the last one I said I can’t do it anymore because of that.
“I missed having a dog especially the walking and then my late wife and I heard about guide dog puppy walking so we gave it a try.”
There’s no doubt that having a guide dog puppy is a huge commitment.
And Harry has just taken delivery of his latest protégé, eight-week-old German Shepherd cross Yoda.
The retired manager said: “It is quite intensive and a big commitment.
“What I need to do for guide dogs during their time with me is twofold. Firstly, there’s socialisation. I need to take her into any situation a guide dog owner would need to go into with a guide dog and to make sure that she comfortable and happy with that situation whether it heavy traffic on main roads, busy town centres, restaurants and pubs, shops and supermarkets as well.
“I need to expose her to anything a guide dog owner might want to do – go on a bus or a train for instance.”
UNSUNG HERO: Harry with Yoda, an eight-week-old German Shepherd cross
Anyone who has ever had a puppy will know the work that’s involved in training and especially toilet training. Well imagine having to do that every year with a different dog!
It doesn’t seem to faze Harry though.
The Bolton resident said: “I need to teach them basic obedience but also a couple of things specific to guide dogs.
“Firstly, there’s a feeding routine. All guide dogs are feed dry food and they have to wait until they are told they can eat because you don’t want a dog jumping all over a blind person while they’re trying to feed them. She has to be taught to sit and wait until I tell her she can have her food and I do that with three sharp blasts on a whistle. There’s a bit of work to do there.
“The other main thing we’ve got to teach them is to relieve themselves on command so that they only does it when she’s told to and not to do it when she’s not told to. This probably takes the most patience and although it sounds like magic but we do it by lapsing it to the dog’s natural rhythm.
“All dog, no matter how old they are, develop a natural rhythm to when they need to relieve themselves so I can tune into that with an appropriate command and when she does go we reward them. Over a period of time she’ll learn to associate the action with the command and the reward. It based on repetition and rewards.”
After spending a year with Harry, Yoda will then spend a further six months in intensive training before she is ready to be place with her new visually impaired owner.
In case there was any doubt about the importance of the role people like Harry play in improving the lives of visually impaired people, that is soon dispelled by a chat to a guide dog owner.
Les Smith from New Moston has been blind since the age of four and has owned his latest guide dog, Jenny, for the last three and a half years.
‘BIG IMPACT’: Les Smith with guide dog Jenny out for a walk
He said: “The biggest impact a guide dog has for me is to take the stress out of getting out and about. Obviously when you’re going from A to B with a guide dog you don’t have to worry about obstacles and things in the middle of pavements because the guide dog does that for you.”
Les, 58, who played for the Blind English Football team and has run six London Marathons, added: “Before I got my first guide dog in 1993 I always vowed I wouldn’t have one because I thought they’d take my independence away but now I wouldn’t like to be without one. Getting one was the best thing I ever did.
“Having a dog gives you a lot more independence and the puppy walkers are an important part of enabling visually impaired people to have that.”
For Harry this is all the reward he needs for what can be a challenging and emotional journey.
He said: “The greatest reward of all is when a guide dog owner writes to you and tells you how much they appreciate what you’ve done. That can be a real emotional moment when you see the impact that your part in training the dog has had.
“I had a letter from one owner saying they didn’t know what their life would now be like without their guide dog. It made me cry and that makes everything worthwhile.
Harry, who also collects for Guide Dogs for the Blind and conducts guided tours around the guide dog centre in Atherton, also has a retired guide dog called Glade, 11, who acts as a foster mother and mentor to Harry’s puppies.
If you would like to find out more about how to get involved with Guide Dogs in the Manchester area, please contact the Manchester Mobility Team on 0845 372 7409 or email [email protected].
You can also visit their website at www.guidedogs.org.uk