Every hour, another person goes blind in the UK. An assistance dog can change the lives of people with sight loss, giving them the confidence and independence to get out of the house and engage with their community. Guide Dogs is the world’s largest breeder and trainer of assistance dogs and last year created over 850 guide dog partnerships. Training an assistance dog requires a lot of time and money. Supporting a guide dog throughout its life costs around £50,000. After breeding and initial training, the dog spends its first year with a volunteer puppy walker, who exposes them to people and their training continues even after they are matched with an owner.
To help raise awareness of the charity’s work with the blind and partially sighted, St Andrews students recently set-up the UK’s first Guide Dogs university society, Guide Dogs Soc, and have been working with the local branch of the charity. One of the society’s main activities this semester has been providing socialisation opportunities for guide dog puppies in training, with local puppy walkers bringing their dogs to Guide Dog Soc meetings to interact with students.
Guide Dogs Soc has been working with Nightline, the University’s information and support service, to plan a ‘Puppy Room Exam De-Stress’ event at the Students Association on Monday 6th May. Students will get to spend time with the puppies and dogs, who will be allowed to run around off their leads in a controlled environment. Cat McGillivray, Vice-President of Guide Dogs Soc, says events like this are really important in helping to train assistance dogs. “The puppies get to socialise with a range of different people which is vital for them in their training process,” she says. “It’s important to remember that these puppies are going to transform the lives of blind and partially sighted people one day, and it’s fantastic to think we have helped them on their journey.”
But it’s not just the puppies that will benefit. The Puppy Room event is part of Nightline’s #StudyWell campaign, which aims to help students remain calm and focused during exams. Nightline’s Deputy Director Katherine Skeels explains, “We jumped at the opportunity to work with Guide Dogs Soc to bring students a little light relief in the form of puppies. Together, we thought that allowing students to spend time with the dogs would help them to alleviate stress and anxiety that they may feel during this time of year.” She adds, “Interacting with these dogs can help students feel more relaxed and generally promote a more positive well-being.”
Guide Dogs Soc will be planning other events and campaigns over the next academic year. One of its key activities will be fundraising £5,000, which is the cost of a puppy’s training in its first year. If this target is reached, students will get to name a puppy and get regular visits from it. You can join the Society’s Facebook group to stay informed about its work and future events.