Friday, 8 August 2014

Skillstep Weeks 10 & 11:
Work Placement at Guide Dogs

Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh

As part of the 12 week Skillstep course at Henshaws, weeks 10 and 11 of the course are focused around a work placement; to help gain experience, learn new skills and provide a general feel of the working environment - as the course itself is geared towards gaining employability skills and helping service users get back into further education, volunteering or paid work.

During the initial interview for the course, you are asked what your interests and skills are to then go towards formulating an appropriate work placement later on in the course, to get as much out of your placement as possible. Since the beginning of the course, I knew I wanted my work placement to be at the Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh, as I am 10 months into my application and am due to start my harness training very soon. I wanted to experience behind the scenes and witness the inner-workings of the organisation, to pick up some tips to go towards my training and, later, skills for caring for my own Guide Dog when the time comes!

Guide Dogs emblem at the front of the Training Centre

My two-week work placement began on Monday, 28th July and continued through to Friday, 8th August. I was lucky enough to be a part of various departments and experience the many different roles within the training centre, including; puppy training, puppy walking, dog care, volunteering and reception work. I enjoyed all of the roles immensely but have to say that dog care was my favourite!

My placement began with two days of puppy walking and training. I met with and talked to six different trainers and, with them, travelled around Atherton, Bolton and Leigh to oversee the training of different dogs at various stages - some at foundation level, some at intermediate working in their harness and some due to start their advanced training in the next month or so, to then go on to graduate as a fully qualified Guide Dog!

Guide Dogs van - 'Life Changer on Board!'

Dogs undertake 16 weeks of training going to different locations such as shopping centres, town precincts, quiet streets and car parks to implement their training skills by walking a straight line run and stopping at every kerb before being told to go forward. The dogs get to experience being around traffic and navigating around shops, which will play big parts in their working life in the future.

The Atherton centre also has zebra crossings, traffic lights and an outside obstacle course containing traffic cones, safety barricades, A-boards and sign posts; so that the dog-in-training has the knowledge and experience of coming into contact with these obstacles and can safely guide their visually impaired working partner around them without hesitation.

Puppy Trainer, Suzanne, with dog-in-training Inca

There were two tours on Tuesday morning at the Training Centre; one for HSBC bank staff who had donated a large sum of money to Guide Dogs and another for the YMCA youth centre as part of their day trip out. Both trips started with a promotional video of the work that Guide Dogs do, followed by a talk from a puppy walker who looks after the puppy for the first 12 months, proceeded by a tour of the complex and concluding with a demonstration from puppy trainers showcasing what foundation, intermediate and advanced level training dogs can achieve on the obstacle course.

Members of the tour were then invited to have a blindfolded walk using a harness and a trainer, acting as the Guide Dog, to lead them around obstacles and let them experience what it's like to be visually impaired using a Guide Dog. I jumped at the chance to practice using a harness again, as this will benefit me greatly when it comes to my harness training at the end of the month; it's best to get as much practice in as possible!

Guide Dogs-in-training: synchronised demonstration

Bliss (Foundation): obstacle demonstration

Barkley (Intermediate): obstacle demonstration

Nessie (Advanced): obstacle demonstration

It was fantastic to witness the dogs at different stages tackling the obstacle course and comparing Bliss at Foundation Level, who has only completed a few weeks of training, to Nessie who has completed her full 16 weeks of training and is at Advanced Level ready to soon become a fully-qualified Guide Dog!

Puppy Trainer, Sharon, with Nessie tackling the obstacle course

Puppy Trainer, Paula, introducing the demonstration

Puppy Trainer, Sharon, with Guide Dog-in-training Nessie

Guide Dog-in-training, Nessie

Towards the end of the second day of walking and training, I was able to experience working with a dog in harness being guided around the outside obstacle course. I worked with Quasar first, who had a mod plus speed, followed by Yasmin, who walked with a much slower pace. This was the first time I was able to experience walking with a dog in harness and it was excellent practice for me.

It confirmed to me that signing up for a Guide Dog was the right decision and something that I will benefit greatly from in the future. I walked with a confidence I have never had before and was given the opportunity to identify my walking speed (mod to mod plus), and found Quasar to be an excellent working partner! After the obstacle course training, I helped to give Yasmin and Quasar a free run using one of the many grassy areas at Atherton used to provide dogs with some down-time after their training sessions.

Quasar (left) and Yasmin (right)

During Wednesday, I had a mixture of different working roles to experience. I finished my final puppy training session in the morning by travelling to a shopping centre nearby. We took Lottie to a cinema foyer and to Pets at Home to get used to some of the different animals available there, including degus and rabbits, and took Otis to Asda to experience being in a supermarket with stacks of food and trollies around. Both are at intermediate levels of training in their harness and did extremely well!

Lottie in the cinema foyer

Otis in Asda

After the puppy training during the first 2 and a half days, it was time for me to move onto a different role within the training centre - as receptionist! I sat with Sue, who was previously a Dog Trainer at the centre for over a decade. She described some of the tasks she does within her role, such as; greeting guests to the centre and providing any directions, giving voice announcements through the microphone, taking phone calls and, if need be, forwarding them on to the correct departments, responding to e-mail enquiries based on a whole host of different topics, ensuring visitors and staff have signed in and out of the log book, taking mail deliveries, and so on. Duties can vary from day-to-day!

Guide Dogs emblem behind Reception

Computer desk behind Reception

Reception desk with computer, stationary, announcement microphone and leaflets

Behind the reception desk is where Connor resides, who is a current Guide Dog-in-training. This enables him to prepare for and get used to an office environment, incase his future working partner is in employment working in an office. He has a water bowl, toys and a bed and greets guests with a bark or by putting his paws on the desk when they enter the training centre! His puppy trainer, Val, will pick him up when it's time for his training and he goes home to his puppy boarder every night.

Connor, Guide Dog-in-training, behind Reception

In the afternoon, I had my first taster of dog care. I met Joanne in the staff room before lunch, and she guided me down to the kennels before explaining some of the different duties within her department. Some of her tasks include filling in health cards for each dog in the kennel, detailing when they have had vet visits and health checks, logging their dietary information, weight and height, grooming the dogs, taking them to their allocated spend areas outside which are attached to each kennel and hosing down afterwards, giving treatments to dogs who have any health problems, weighing out the correct amount of food for each dog (either Royal Canin or Eukanuba), and providing play time with the dogs after their training.

I was given the fantastic opportunity of grooming 3 different dogs, including German Shepherd Cross Evie and her brother Evan as well as Golden Retriever Chisel, which was excellent practice for me as this is something I will be doing regularly when I have trained for my own Guide Dog!

There are 4 stages to grooming. The first is to get your fingertips into the coat and rub in circular motions across the fur to release the oils in the coat and skin and to help with circulation. The second stage is to use a rubber Zoom Groom against the direction of the fur. This helps to remove the loose hairs, stimulate capillaries and, again, release natural oils from the skin and coat. The third stage of grooming involves using a metal toothed comb at a 45° angle in the direction of the fur to gather the loose hairs in the teeth of the comb and to provide a proper brush through the coat evenly. It's best to start at the ears and move downwards, so as not to spread any germs from the lower end and then move them up towards the face. The final stage of grooming involves using a paddle brush, again to catch any final loose hairs and to also collect any dandruff. The paddle brush also provides a buffer for the coat and gives a nice shine and smooth finish.

After I had finished grooming, I then helped to give play time to some of the dogs who had training earlier in the day. Play time is done inside one of the outdoor play areas which has a box containing lots of different toys as well as a water bucket. Dogs will have their favourite rubber toys to play with, such as tyres, coloured rags, rubber balls and bones, and can have some down-time with each other as well as a much-needed drink after their exertion!

Before leaving and setting off for home on Wednesday afternoon, I met with Pebble - who I had previously met during the visit to the centre a few weeks ago with Henshaws, as part of the Skillstep course. It was wonderful to meet her again, and I must admit that I have fallen completely in love with Pebble!

Pebble having a rest in the staff room

Pebble looking into the camera

Pebble and I, such a model with her paw on my wrist!

Pebble and I

Suzanne, Pebble's Dog Trainer, kindly took some photos of us together and also brought along some brushes, so that I could implement the skills I had learned earlier in the day and give Pebble a nice groom! I feel like I've really bonded with her, but in no way have I been like Paul O' Grady in his Love of Dogs television programme and tried to sneak away with Pebble. That absolutely did not happen!

I had a day off on Thursday, and returned to the centre on Friday to experience working in the Volunteering Department, or PRO: People Resource Office. In this department, staff respond to e-mails and phone calls focused around people wanting to volunteer for Guide Dogs in a variety of different roles; either as Puppy Walkers, collecting money via collection tins at supermarkets and events, or fundraising for the charity in a variety of ways. You can read more about volunteering for Guide Dogs and the various roles available by clicking here.

I was given the task of putting new labels onto the collection boxes, as the older ones featured the previous corporate colours, logo and contact information and newer ones had been redesigned to feature the new logo and contact information. There were 16 boxes altogether, each filled with 15 collection tins, which is a total of 240 collection tins to relabel altogether! Relabelling continued from Friday to Monday, where I remained at the volunteering department for a second day.

Guide Dogs collection tin with new labels

Collection tins: old label vs. new label

I loved how tactile the collection tins were, and it was fairly easy for me to put the labels on as a severely visually impaired person as there was a tactile groove at the top and bottom of the cylinder which I used as a guide to place the label. I quite enjoyed doing the labelling, and Moss - a Guide Dog-in-training, whose boarder works in the volunteering department - would come over to oversee the work I was doing! I think he loved the dogs on top of the tins as much as I did!

When I had finished he labelling, I had another job to do which involved ripping old envelopes and leaflets designed for a Stan Out for Guide Dogs event in the Autumn of last year, that were out of date and needed disregarding. There were 5 boxes of these, containing around approximately 300 envelopes and leaflets each.

Guide Dog-in-training, Moss

When I had finished my work in the Volunteering Department on Monday afternoon, I was kindly invited to watch the filming in the arena of some of the puppies undertaking one of their training classes for Blue Peter, to be aired on the show very soon within the next few weeks. Involved in the puppy training class was Blue Peter's very own Guide Dog puppy, Iggy, who I was very lucky to have met after filming had finished! I took some photos and videos of the puppy class filming, which you can view below.

Blue Peter filming Iggy the Guide Dog pup

Puppy Training class filmed for Blue Peter

Blue Peter presenter, Lindsey Russell, with Iggy (right)

Filming of Blue Peter presenter, Lindsey, with Iggy the puppy

I then met Iggy and her new puppy boarder, Poppy, for some cuddles and photos. She's such a well-behaved little girl and even cuter in real life than on television! You can read more about Iggy the Guide Dog puppy by visiting the Blue Peter website here! Videos are also available of the progress she has made so far.

Myself with Blue Peter's Guide Dog puppy, Iggy!


Some of the photos I took of Iggy,
including her Blue Peter badge attached to her collar!

On Tuesday, I continued with Dog Care for the full day which I had a taster of during the previous Wednesday afternoon. I started the day by helping to give Postie and Ewan a free run on one of the larger grassy areas that had some slight hills. Postie and Ewan are the best of friends, but sadly Postie is a withdrawn dog looking to be re-homed in the near future.

Ewan (left) and Postie (right) during their free run

After giving Postie and Ewan a good 25 minutes free run, it was then time to return to the kennels to begin my grooming session. I groomed 2 dogs in the morning; Tally and Spencer. I implemented the skills I had learned in the previous week, when grooming Evie, Evan, Chisel and Pebble, using the fingertips in circular motions to stimulate circulation and release oils and then proceeded to use the 3 different brushes, that included; the zoom groom, the metal comb and the paddle brush. I was tested on which order the brushes are used, how they are used and why that are used - and passed with flying colours! I consider myself to be an expert now!

Grooming Spencer!

Tally (left) and Spencer (right) on the grooming station!

After grooming, I helped to give 4 dogs their play time; including Eddie, Sadie, Spencer and Roy. As with before, lots of rubber toys are given to the dogs from the box so that they can identify their favourites and play with them and a water bucket is provided for a drink after they have had a play fight with each other! I finished Tuesday afternoon by helping to give a free run to CJ, a black labrador.

During the final day of my work placement at the training centre in Atherton, I tried my hand at obedience training! Laura and Paula, two of the Dog Trainers, talked me through the correct commands  and voice tone to use, and I had a go of telling both Spangle and Pebble commands, such as; sit, down, wait, heel and straight on. I began by having a walk around the arena with them, one at a time, to build up rapport and then gave the commands afterwards. I also tried calling their names when taking them off their leads to see if they responded and came back to me - which they did! I absolutely enjoyed my morning with Spangle and Pebble trying out obedience training!

Spangle and I after obedience training!

Pebble number 2 and I after obedience training!

My work placement at the Guide Dogs Training Centre in Atherton, Leigh, has now sadly come to an end. I've had an absolutely fantastic two weeks and now have a much better knowledge and understanding of the process of how the dogs are trained, how much time and effort is put into each dog, and I've learned lots of invaluable key skills of how to look after my own Guide Dog. The staff have been so friendly and welcoming and I'm so grateful that they have taken time out of their busy schedules to accommodate and support me.

I've recently applied to become a fundraiser and collection tin co-ordinator near to my local area, so hope to be a part of many future events for Guide Dogs to show my appreciation and gratitude!