MUCH has changed in the 75 years Guide Dogs have been training in Leamington. But as reporter Laura Kearns discovered when she went to visit the centre on New Warwick Road, some things still remain the same.
Seeing a guide dog with his trainer is commonplace as you walk around Leamington, Kenilworth or Warwick. Many know to ignore the dogs – no matter how adorable they are – and leave them to their training.
But when I meet the centre’s service development manager Tony Murray he tells me much work has been done to educate residents in what to do when they see a puppy in training.
He said: “Over the years we have done much to raise awareness of what to do when you see a guide dog and now people are much better at not distracting them than they were some 30 years ago. Social media has played a huge part in this because we can reach more people with our campaigns.
“Nowadays people in South Warwickshire are usually very good in knowing not to approach a dog. In Coventry it is a bit different as we don’t go there as often, so we can have people going up to them. However anywhere we go you always will get the one person who knows they shouldn’t fuss the dog but they do anyway.”
The centre – which trains some 220 dogs a year – have also altered how they teach dogs, which they say is mainly down to a change in the public’s perception of animals.
Rather than firm handling and using ‘choke’ collars which tighten when the dog disobeys, the trainers now use positive reinforcement and teach them to respond to rewards and treats.
And instead of just giving a dog to an owner, the charity now match the pair together – a process which Tony says is like ‘speed dating’.
He said: “We match more guide dogs than ever, with around 300 owners currently across the area we cover – Warwickshire, Coventry, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire – it is important to put the right dog with the right person.
“We look at how active they both are, their heights and stride, and whether they have allergies – which dogs like labradoodles are good for. Years ago we would have just given a dog to an owner and if it failed to work out we’d try another dog. Now, you could call it guide dog speed dating.”
Despite the public changing how they deal with the dogs and their owners over the years, some businesses are still falling behind with the times.
A recent incident at a Coventry restaurant saw an owner being told to tie her dog up outside the building or leave. The young woman filmed the incident at the PGR diner in a video which has since been shared thousands of times.
But Tony says this incident is not a one off and they receive at least one report a month about businesses which refuse entry to guide dogs. He believes many go unreported as owners are embarrassed.
He said: “The issue is that some businesses do not understand it is the law that guide dogs are allowed anywhere. It isn’t just restaurants we get reports about, it can be all kinds of places from hotels to pubs. We have even heard of cases where hotels try to charge people for having a dog with them.
“When we hear a premises has refused entry then we call them up and explain the law to them. This usually resolves the problem, although we have many unreported cases as owners are too embarrassed about being told to take their dog out or leave.”
With the centre having been opened in Leamington since 1941 they have become part of the local community, with not many outings completed without seeing one of the Labradors, Golden Retrievers or other guide dogs in training.
However the charity still need volunteers to help with jobs from training to helping in the on-site shop.
Visit www.guidedogs.org.uk to find out more.