Nicola here. If mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, according to Noel Coward, then it’s surely a mad Englishwoman who thinks she can take on the training of a guide dog puppy and write books at the same time! At the start of this year we welcomed Rochester the guide dog puppy into our family for the first year of his training. Today he is 10 weeks old and this blog is about our first month with Rochester and what it is like to train a guide dog puppy whilst planning and starting a new series of books. First a bit of background…
History and the domestic dog
Man and dog have a long history. Elegant greyhounds are present in the hunting scenes in medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. By the 18th century portraits abounded of aristocrats out hunting with their dogs and their horses. Dogs were also often characterised in portraits as the most loyal and faithful companions of man (or woman). From the 16th century there are records of them as pets as well as working dogs. Payments for Henry VIII’s spaniel Cutte are recorded in the royal accounts. Mary Queen of Scots and her granddaughter Elizabeth of Bohemia were both well known for their fondness for dogs and of course Elizabeth’s son, Prince Rupert, famously had a pet standard poodle called Boye.
Another famous dog of the era was Bungey, who belonged to Sir John Harington and was prodigiously clever, carrying letters from Bath to Greenwich on more than one occasion, transporting two flagons of sherry across country, hiding one when it became too heavy and returning to retrieve it later, and finding Sir John’s purse when he lost it. Now that is a clever dog.
The choice of a pet dog was limited up until the 19th century by the fact that there were only sixteen breeds of dog recorded in England. These had originally been bred for different aspects of working and included spaniels, mastiffs, beagles, wolfhounds and deer hounds as well as greyhounds. Often the more exotic dogs owned by the nobility were imported with small French dogs being particularly popular!
The Labrador and the Golden Retriever
Rochester is a cross between a Labrador and a Golden Retriever, bred specially by Guide Dogs to combine the best qualities of both breeds. The Labrador originated from Canada, bred from the St John’s Water Dog. This picture is of Nell, a 12 year old St John’s Water Dog photographed in 1867. She looks recognisably like a Labrador.
There are records of Labradors in the UK from the early 19th century – the first written record of the breed is in the 1814 book by Colonel Peter Hawker “Advice to young sportsmen” and a Labrador features in a painting by Edwin Landseer in 1823 as “Cora a Labrador bitch.” In contrast the Golden Retriever breed originated in 18th century Scotland. Both dogs were working dogs, as Rochester will be but in a different way.
Having had a Labrador gundog as a pet we have been intrigued by the differences between the guide dog breed and the gundog breed. Monty, our pet Labrador, lived to plunge into water and fetch things. None of the guide dogs puppies we have trained have been particularly interested in water and all looked puzzled when they saw Monty swimming. This is excellent because a dive into the river whilst out with their owners is clearly something to be discouraged in a guide dog. Similarly Monty was a master of retrieving whereas the guide dog puppies are not but when it comes to learning obedience and walking on the lead they are superb from an early age. Rochester already trots along very neatly at only 10 weeks.
A Working Day
And so to living with Rochester. (Couldn't resist the photo of Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester there!) When Rochester is four months and older he will start to do lots of exciting and complicated things such as mastering stairs and elevators, visiting airports and travelling on the train. At the moment he is learning his basic commands such as “sit” – he’s got that one already – and “stay” and is starting to visit shops and other interesting places. An average day for Rochester and for me (and the cat) looks something like this:
Rochester: Wake up, play, sleep again, practise obedience for 5 minutes, eat breakfast, be very lively, try to eat furniture, sleep, go out for a trip in the car or walk for 10 minutes, sleep, wake up, eat, play, try to steal washing, go mad as puppies do… All repeated throughout the day.
Bob the cat: Sleep, eat, discourage puppy from chasing cats by slapping his face with paw.
Nicola: variations of: Feed Rochester, train Rochester, play with Rochester, prevent Rochester from chewing the furniture and grab 45 minutes writing during the times he is asleep! Writing in chunks like this is not the way I usually work but I have managed to get a surprising amount done. I admit to feeling exhausted. It won’t always be as full on as this but I hope it will always be as rewarding because Rochester is a super little dog who will one day, we hope, become a fully qualified guide dog. If you would like to follow Rochester’s progress, he has his own blog “Puppy with a Purpose.” The guide dog sites are here for the UK and here for the US.
Are you a dog person? Or perhaps a cat person? Have you had experience of assistance dogs and the work they do?