Every year the Fédération Française des Associations de Chiens Guides d’Aveugles hands over about 230 highly trained guide dogs to people with visual impairment. It is a member of the International Guide Dog Federation and has 10 regional associations, which have 17 schools between them and a network of breeding centres.
The associations are often on the lookout for volunteers to look after puppies at home to prepare them for specialist training in the schools when they are a year old. The volunteers teach the dog basic house training and sociability and the school teaches the dog to respond to 50 commands, including finding a seat for a person in the street and recognising bumps in a pavement.
Rewarding and collaborative
Claudine de Ligne, from Angers, has been a volunteer host for 18 years and said: “It is a serious undertaking but is so interesting and it is a wonderful reward to see the dog you have helped train with its new owner.” Volunteer foster families are well supported and Ms de Ligne said: “Trainers come to our home and we take the puppies to the school about once a week. We make sure the dog will respond to orders, is well-behaved and won’t, for example, run after cats, jump on the sofa or eat anything from the table."
“The whole family has to join in, so the dog won’t get conflicting orders. You have to dedicate a great deal of time and energy to looking after the young dog and it is a great responsibility, because any mistakes in the puppy’s early life may reappear later when the dog is with its poorly sighted owner. It would be difficult to combine it with a full-time job."
“I was at home bringing up my family and it worked well for me. Anyone who is retired and active could do it too.” At about two years old, the dog has to pass a test before it is handed over to its visually impaired owner.
Dogs stay on after retirement
They retire aged about 10 but will often stay with their owner or their family as a pet. If that is not possible, guide dog associations look for other volunteers to take them in. About one per cent of people with sight problems can have a guide dog, which can be life-changing.
The federation’s communication manager Geneviève Lapauw said: “Guide dogs give confidence to their owner out on the street, make human contact easier, because people love to come and ask about the dog, and they are a valuable companion.” Each dog costs about €25,000 to train and is given free to the person in need but it belongs to the training school throughout its life.
The federation depends on donations from individuals as it is given no government funding. For more details, visit the chiensguides.fr website.