Maggie Ritchie: A gift that can give freedom and independence to thousands

Amid the pandemic gloom there are moments when the clouds part and light shines through.

It can happen anywhere, but a perfect example for me was when I was waiting to leave the vaccination centre after my booster shot a few days ago.

I noticed the atmosphere lift with the sound of laughter and excited chatter. Several people were admiring a blind woman’s guide dog, a handsome golden retriever who sat calmly at her feet while they asked questions about the animal.

Everyone perked up, their attention diverted to the dog and their minds off the grim reality of yet another variant and the sense of “here we go again” as a fourth wave threatens our longed-for return to normality.

There’s nothing like the presence of a clever, loyal assistance dog to raise the spirits in the knowledge that not only are they impeccably behaved but are giving their owners freedom they would otherwise struggle to achieve.

Our family walks in Pollokshields are often enlivened by the sight of a man who lives a few doors down training guide dog puppies as a volunteer. It’s always a joy to see him taking a more or less well-behaved young Lab or retriever out and about with its tabard – a sign that people shouldn’t stop to pet the trainees, even though they are more temptingly adorable than a whole studio full of Andrex puppies.

I wrote about the Guide Dogs for the Blind training school in Forfar a while back and found out that not all the dogs make the grade as some are too playful or easily distracted for their serious role. But these scamps are easily rehomed and become much-loved pets while their more disciplined classmates are set on a career.

A volunteer at the vaccination centre, on finding out the woman’s guide dog was nine, anxiously asked what would happen when it retired. We were reassured to be told that the owner has the option to adopt the dog if there is someone else in the house to help look after it when the new dog arrived. In this case, a family member will adopt.

I’ve just read about a survey of dog owners by Guide Dogs for the Blind – a daft festive story that also cheered me up. Apparently, guide dogs have revealed their top 10 Christmas songs with Last Christmas by Wham! voted the favourite by our furry friends, who showed their appreciation by wagging their tales or just generally being excited.

This was closely followed by Jingle Bells and Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas, with pups preferring upbeat hits over traditional carols. Other favourites included Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas, Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, and Wizzard’s I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day (there’s no escaping that one – even for dogs).

At the bottom of the list were A Wonderful Christmas Time sung by Paul McCartney, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas by Michael Bublé, along with the downbeat grunge of The Pogue’s Fairytale of New York.

There’s also a Christmas campaign ad for Guide Dogs for the Blind about a man call Scott taking his dog Milo and his family to choose a Christmas tree. The advert is simple and straightforward, told by Scott, not a professional actor. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the glossy department store and supermarket TV ads that compete to be more stylish and quirkier every year, but Scott’s love and gratitude for his dog is heartfelt and moving – and puts all those other ads into the shade.

The campaign is looking for donations to train more puppies to become these magnificent, lifesaving and life-enhancing helpers. The charity provides UK figures that give pause for thought: every hour another person goes blind; 180,000 people with sight loss rarely leave home alone, and there are nearly two million people with sight loss – by 2050 there could be four million.

The appeal is to ‘adopt’ a gorgeous guide dog puppy for £1 a week and the website has delightful pictures and biographies for Kevin, a handsome Labrador cross golden retriever who likes to explore, Comet, a loveable black Labrador who enjoys having his tummy tickled, and Pudding, a fluffy golden retriever who enjoys cosy afternoon naps.

You can watch your sponsored puppy grow from a mischievous six-week bundle of fur to a fully qualified guide dog. After 24 months of training, the puppy will be ready to give freedom and independence to someone with sight loss.

In this case, a puppy really can be for Christmas.

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