A FANAD couple have told of how being a puppy raiser for Irish Guide Dogs has changed their lives.
Kevin and Majella Walsh are volunteers with Irish Guide Dogs.
Their one-year-old Labrador dog, Hazel, was given to them during lockdown when she was just seven weeks old.
As puppy raisers, they have helped to train Hazel, who will, in the future, become an assistance or guide dog to help bring independence through mobility for a person a with visual impairment or help families with children with autism.
The couple attended a volunteer recruitment evening in Letterkenny Community Centre, organised by the Donegal Branch of Irish Guide Dogs.
Speaking to the Donegal News ahead of the event, the couple told of how they were preparing to say a heartbreaking goodbye to Hazel the following day, as she returned to Irish Guide Dog Headquarters in Cork for further training for six to eight months.
“As puppy raisers, we help the puppy through their first stages of training to become a guide or assistance dogs. We felt like it was something that we were able to do. We’re retired and have the time. It has been great.’
The couple were part of a pilot programme in Donegal.
“This is the first time puppies have been raised in Donegal and Hazel is one of five siblings. It has been very special to be a part of it.”
Hazel arrived into Kevin and Majella’s lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We were very well supported by Irish Guide Dogs. After Hazel settled in, we started Zoom classes. We were set various tasks to do every week and Irish Guide Dogs would then watch us practise to see how we were doing.”
The couple admitted saying goodbye to Hazel will be tough. They told of another family member who will very much miss Hazel.
“We have a two-year-old Jack Russell called Murphy. They have been great together. He will miss Hazel even more than us. There will be tears, it will be very hard to say goodbye to her but it has been very worthwhile. Hazel has another six to eight months intensive training in Cork and then they will decide after that where she is going and what she will do.
“Hazel has done so well, we’re very proud of her and we have met lots of new people.”
Guide dog owner, Jennifer Doherty told of the life-changing benefits she has enjoyed with her dog, Sybil. Letterkenny man and martial arts expert John Wilkie is a volunteer with the charity.
Having shed his socks and shoes for a barefoot walk around the outside of Aura Leisure Centre, he is hoping to take a step forward by climbing Kilimanjaro with Jason Black, Donegal athlete and world’s leading high altitude mountaineer with summits of Mount Everest and K2.
The charity is appealing for puppy raising and fundraising volunteers. Irish Guide Dogs say it takes around €5 million a year to run the charity.
A dog will cost around €53,000 for their lifespan. All services are provided free of charge to clients. Eighty per cent of what the charity takes in is through direct fundraising.
One puppy raiser told of how a guide dog she trained transformed the life of a young woman who was visually impaired, and who had no family:“It’s an amazing charity and I would urge everyone to consider getting involved. There’s also a great social aspect to it among volunteers.”
Hazel, along with Hope, Harry, Honey and Sybil were last month shown the ropes at Donegal Airport, where they were taught how to behave in an airport environment.
“We have taken them to Donegal Airport. They went through security, onto the tarmac, up the steps and into the aeroplanes. It was just an amazing thing,” said the volunteer.
“When you hand a pup over it doesn’t get any easier. It is heartbreaking because you know it the dog isn’t yours and it must move on. But after a couple of days you hear from the trainer and see how well the dog is getting on and it lifts you up.”
For information see www.guidedogs.ie
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