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London's guide dogs for the blind are trained to become owner's eyes at busy Camden office block

PUBLISHED: 13:00 10 May 2013 | UPDATED: 21:16 10 May 2013

Guide dog trainers Laura Skinner (left) and Zoe Aird with dog Nan. Picture: Tony Gay

Guide dog trainers Laura Skinner (left) and Zoe Aird with dog Nan. Picture: Tony Gay

TONY GAY at tonephote@aol.com

On the fourth floor of a busy office block in Camden, where men in ties and suits work their nine to fives, seven dogs are also keeping office hours.

Guide dog trainer Laura Skinner puts trainee dog Nan through his paces. Picture: Tony GayGuide dog trainer Laura Skinner puts trainee dog Nan through his paces. Picture: Tony Gay

The grey-carpeted room in Melton Street, Euston, with desks and computers rather than dog baskets, is where future guide dogs spend their working day as they are trained to lead the visually impaired.

The office is run by the charity, Guide Dogs, and it is the only training centre in London.

Guide Dogs provides dogs for hundreds of people who are blind or partially sighted, and anyone who would like a dog is added to a waiting list.

But it takes three years of rigorous one-on-one training for a puppy to learn how to safely lead the blind.

Mike Woolston, team manager of the London branch of Guide Dogs, says that the busy transport hub of Euston is the best place for dogs to get used to the noises and traffic of the capital city before they are handed over to their owner.

“People are often surprised to walk by and hear barking out of the fourth floor,” said Mr Woolston.

“But it is important the dogs are in the capital. They can’t go out in the leafy suburbs because that’s not where they are going to be working.

“This is the perfect place for them to train because there’s so much going on – there’s lots of transport, the roads are busy, there’s construction and signs in the streets, and there are also some residential areas. They have to get used to all of that.”

Each dog has its own pen in the office, with a desk and a computer that holds the animal’s details. They keep regular office hours and are taken out once a day by trainers to learn how to stop at curbs, navigate the Tube, ride on escalators, stop at shops and press the button at pedestrian crossings.

Treats and repetition get them through the tasks and as the dogs are trained, they abandon their animal instincts such as scavenging and barking at other dogs, and become reliable and obedient companions, recognising a multitude of commands.

There are 325 guide dog owners across London, with five in Camden and all have been trained at the centre in Euston.

From birth until the end of the training each dog costs the charity £52,000.

The service, including food for the dogs, training and health bills, comes free to owners.

Glen Coulle, 76, and his dog Flint, live in Belsize Park and Flint was trained at the centre in Euston.

Nine years ago Mr Coulle was diagnosed with diabetes and his vision started to blur.

“I was in my flat and I was working, everything was fine,” he said. “But then things started to go black and my whole world went upside down.”

Mr Coulle has had two guide dogs and Flint retires in July.

“I am going to cry buckets when he goes,” said Mr Coulle. “He’s part of my life – he is my eyes. Everywhere I go, he goes.”

Mr Coulle says Flint, a black Labrador, has been described as the “most beautiful dog in London”.

“People stop me all the time,” he says. “He’s got a broad head they say, and he looks very intelligent.”

Most dogs are born at a breeding centre in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

Each brood is named with a different letter of the alphabet. Flint, like his brothers and sisters, were given names beginning with F – nothing too long, nothing that sounds like a guide dog command, and no brand names.

Once the dogs are old enough, they move to training centres across the country.

It takes 15 months to become a guide dog trainer and there are only 100 people in the country who can do it.

Zoe Aird, 37, of Essex, and Laura Skinner, 27, of Ealing, work at the Euston centre, and it is through their daily walks that the dogs develop the skills that will allow them to lead blind people through the streets. For both, training guide dogs is a dream job.

“I always loved dogs and I knew I wanted to train animals,” said Mrs Aird, who has worked at the centre for five years. “That’s what it was about for me – and to see how much these dogs transform people’s lives, that’s really good.”

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