On Friday, October 17, fundraisers for Guide Dogs were out in force in Daventry town centre.
The charity, which is entirely reliant on charitable donations, is responsible for more than 8,000 guide dogs in the UK, helping 4,800 blind and partially sighted people lead independent lives.
While they often go unnoticed, these silent companions provide a vital service in guiding blind and partially sighted people, as well as being a valued source of comfort and companionship.
But these highly-trained animals come at a cost, with a hefty £50,000 price tag for each dog over the course of its lifetime.
This staggering expense is met through the efforts of Guide Dogs activists like Hazel Worrall, 57, and Sharon Cranston, 52, who fundraise in and around Daventry.
Hazel said: “Some people love getting involved in dogs. It is a way to put something back into the community. These are people who like dogs; you can indulge you love of dogs and get to help people as well.”
Sharon is a brood bitch holder. Her dog Hattie carries litters of new guide dogs each year. She said: “There are only two or three people with guide dogs in Daventry.”
But Sharon added. “There are 20-30 people in the area around the town. There are a lot of people with sight loss waiting for dogs, There is a really urgent need.
“I lost my own dog about three years ago. I didn’t think I would get another, but then I met someone with a retired guide dog and they told me about being a brood bitch holder.
“I look after Hattie full time. She has had all the basic training. This includes things like obedience and being taught not to lick, bark or jump up at people.”
Pure Labradors or pure Golden Retrievers are most commonly used as guide dogs, as well as retriever lab crosses.
After they are born puppies remain at home for six weeks and then are tested at a centre near Leamington.
Those which don’t pass the tests are often transferred to other disability charities or become police dogs.
Sharon said: “Hattie had her first litter in January. She had 10 puppies. Brood bitches have one to two litters a year until they are about seven. When Hattie retires she will stay with me.”
After profiling, puppies go to puppy walkers at eight weeks old for a year of basic training. This includes taking them into shops and familiarising them sitting under tables in restaurants. Liz Hudson has been a puppy walker in Daventry since April last year.
She said: “I look at it like I am a foster mum. My dogs go into training and do great things; it makes me very proud and it is very satisfying. I was not originally a dog owner but the charity gives you a lot of support.”
After a final course of training in Leamington, dogs are finally ready to be matched to a blind or partially sighted person.
Sharon said: “We try to match the dog as closely as possible to the person and their family. If someone was a keen walker, for example, we’d look to give them a German Shepherd or another dog with a lot of stamina.
“If they are older or less active, we try to find a dog to match that as well.”
Each guide dog has a working life of five to seven years, after which they are re-homed with a new family.
“Some people have 12 dogs in their lifetimes,” Sharon said.
Rachel Nafzger, who lives in Daventry, said her guide dog Nikita has played a crucial role in allowing her to lead an independent life.
She said: “I depend on Nikita and she depends on me. We are a team, and we learn from each other.”
Rachel, who is 24, used a cane until she was 18 but found it difficult to navigate when she went to Bath University. But after training with Nikita Rachel completed her degree in English literature and creative writing at Plymouth.
She said: “The support Guide Dogs gives you goes beyond just training, it is always there.
“When I moved to Plymouth my trainer was amazing, she came down with me.
“The difference was incredible. People were sometimes reluctant to approach me and I found it difficult to meet people. But the dog is a great ice-breaker. It gave me the confidence to join societies and clubs.”
If you would like find out more about volunteering, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus.