Puppy Love: Ware Guide Dogs raiser on the joys of the job

Puppy raisers Steve and Mel with Flash in the Artisan Garden at RHS Chelsea 2021

Puppy raisers Steve and Mel with Flash in the Artisan Garden at RHS Chelsea created in celebration of 90 years of guide dog partnerships in Britain - Credit: Christopher Ison

Helping to give a gift that is truly life-changing, we meet a Herts puppy trainer for Guide Dogs and her special 90th anniversary mascot 

‘Guide dogs have a very important job to do. They will change someone’s life forever and become their guiding star. To be part of that journey is incredible.’ 

Mel Nevel and her partner Steve, who live with their children in Thundridge near Ware, are puppy raisers for Guide Dogs. ‘We love dogs and were thinking about getting one, but we were concerned about committing ourselves,’ Mel says.

Keen charity supporters, they contacted the charity in 2019 and, following a home assessment to ensure the environment was suitable,  the couple were assigned their first puppy, Berry. 

‘Anybody can be a puppy raiser,’ explains Mel, ‘but you can’t leave the dog for more than three hours, so it’s a big commitment. If you go to work, you have to take it with you. A guide dog in training is allowed to accompany you anywhere, though, so our current puppy, Flash, who we’ve had since March, goes wherever we go.

She’s been on a river boat, taxi, tube, train and long car journeys. She’s always willing to get involved in all different environments, is very sociable and has fantastic recall. She’s going to make a fabulous guide dog.’ 

A puppy raiser’s job is to ensure a guide dog puppy is well socialised before entering advanced training with an instructor, by introducing them to new experiences – sights, sounds, smells, touch, physical movement, grooming and health check equipment, and wearing equipment such as a harness.

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These introductions are done when the puppy is in a calm and relaxed state of mind, so new things are perceived as either neutral or positive. 

The aim is for a puppy to gradually stop paying attention to irrelevant everyday information, such as the kettle, boiler, traffic noise outside, birds in the garden or movement in a vehicle. 

Flash Guide Dog puppy and mascot for Guide Dogs' 90th anniversary

Flash at just a few weeks old - puppy raisers receive dogs early - Credit: Mel Nevel

‘Flash was seven weeks old when we got her – so it’s a lot sooner than you would get a normal puppy. They need lots of love, cuddles and encouragement, and you grow together. 

‘Twice a month we have a puppy class to teach us what to do, but it’s essentially all about developing a well-behaved dog with good manners and the patience to sit and wait.

'Sitting in a restaurant and not eating the chocolate cake that’s fallen on the floor takes a lot of training! There’s no miracle. It’s about being consistent. 

‘Flash has got a big personality. She is incredibly loving and adores cuddles. She’s so funny and makes us laugh all the time. When we were washing the car, she stuck her head in the bucket of water and came out with a soapy face. She’s just so inquisitive.’ 

Flash made national headlines in September, when she pulled over BBC Breakfast weather presenter Carol Kirkwood at the Chelsea Flower Show live on TV, footage that quickly went viral online. ‘Up to that point, Flash had been absolutely brilliant,’ laughs Mel.

BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood and presenter Sophie Raworth with guide dog Flash

BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood and broadcaster Sophie Raworth with Flash at Chelsea. Flash pulled Carol over while presenting live on BBC Breakfast - footage that quickly went viral - Credit: Christopher Ison

Flash was at the show in her capacity as the mascot for Guide Dogs' 90th anniversary and was named after one of the charity's first four dogs.

Flash has attended lots of events this year, including, very suitably, the premiere of Paw Patrol: The Movie in Leicester Square, and at a garden designed for the charity's anniversary at RHS Chelsea.

‘We’d stayed over in a hotel the night before, and it had been a long day,' Mel explains. 

'I was standing behind the cameraman, encouraging Flash to stay with Carol, who was holding her lead. Flash found this all a bit strange because I never give her to anybody else to hold. Only Steve and I take her for walks because you have to be registered with Guide Dogs.

'Flash pulled on the lead, to come to me, and Carol, who was crouching down, toppled over. Everybody found it very amusing.’ 

'Kirkwood down!' fellow presenter Dan Walker shouted with delight back in the studio. 

Designer Sir Paul Smith with female guide dog puppy in training, F

Designer Sir Paul Smith meets Flash - Credit: Christopher Ison Photography

Guide Dogs was started in 1931 by two British pioneers, Muriel Crooker and Rosamund Bond, who organised the training of the first four British guide dogs – Flash, Meta, Judy and Folly – from a lock-up in Wallasey, Merseyside.

They were matched with four veterans blinded due to faulty gas masks in the First World War. Since then, 36,000 lives have been transformed through a guide dog partnership. 

Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds have been, and remain, Guide Dogs most common pure breeds on the programme, but the charity now also has curly-haired retrievers and standard poodles.

Historically, the golden retriever crossed with the Labrador has proved the most successful guide dog, combining many of the desirable traits of both breeds. 

‘They are raised for their temperament,’ Mel explains. ‘They all have their DNA checked to make sure they have the right nature. They need to be calm and steady, gentle and incredibly patient, but they also need to be able to push through crowds and make their presence known. They can’t be frightened.’ 

Guide dogs stay with their puppy raisers for 14 to 16 months, before heading off for advanced training, when they live with a boarder and attend puppy school from 9am to 5pm, until they are matched with their owner at 20 to 24 months old.

Actor and comedian Chris OÕDowd with female guide dog puppy in training, Flash

Actor and comedian Chris O'Dowd with Flash at Chelsea - Credit: Christopher Ison Photography

‘There is great sadness when a puppy leaves to go to advanced training,’ Mel admits. ‘It's difficult to say goodbye, but we know from the beginning that the puppy has got a very important job to do.

‘We are given two weeks’ warning, but the trainer goes on to give us updates on what they’ve achieved, so you can follow their journey the whole way along. 

'Berry, our first guide dog puppy, who left us in January, has just qualified and I’m so proud of her. There was overwhelming emotion when she was matched to her blind person.’ 

For some puppies in training, being a guide dog isn’t right for them. They may have behavioural or health difficulties, such as a skin condition, anxiety or problems with their joints.

These puppies still have a role to play, become 'buddy dogs' - essentially very well-behaved pet dogs - for children with sight loss, to help develop children’s self-confidence, improve relationships and build a greater sense of trust. 

For anyone considering becoming a puppy raiser, Mel says it’s hugely rewarding. ‘We do it because we want to support Guide Dogs, and we have had tremendous support from the charity, so we are not doing it on our own.

'It’s a voluntary role, but Guide Dogs pays all the costs – from medical bills to dog food. The only thing you’re giving is your time, and you are part of a journey that will positively change someone’s life forever. What can be better than that?’ 

Think you could be a guide dog puppy raiser? Visit guidedogs.org.uk or call 0345 1430191.