After two years of waiting, Sunny a four year old yellow lab, was introduced to her new owner Harvey in 2017 as his guide dog. She’d had a difficult few months having originally been placed with another partially sighted lady, it became evident that she wasn’t well enough to look after Sunny, so the dog was taken back to live with her original trainer.
When she was then matched with Harvey, Sunny arrived unharnessed and took to Harvey very quickly. Much of this was down to the fact that Harvey has bred Labradors for many years, so his affinity with the breed is very strong. The support from Guide Dogs for the Blind is vital in these early days, making sure that dog and handler create a good bond. Six months on this bond is clear to see.
Any potential guide dog is bred very carefully. Even before they are fully weaned the breeder starts their acclimatisation to the job they will do later in life and they are then placed with a puppy walker for a year or so. This time is in part fun, but there is some particular teaching that is incorporated too. Next they go to be trained to become a fully fledged guide dog (not every dog makes the grade). And such special training it is. Looking at Sunny, she is as any young Lab should be – cheery, welcoming, bouncy and if there’s a little food about she’s your very best find. However, the minute Harvey appears with her lead and harness, she changes. All the jumping stops and she stands stock still while her harness is attached and set, and her lead attached. One reason this is so important is Harvey has just 20% vision in only one eye, so if Sunny was to move, it would be far more of a challenge to get ready to go out. As it is, getting ready to go, takes no time, but the steadiness is now very evident.
As Harvey opens the door of his Wiltshire home, Sunny will always be between him and the door, thus ensuing he doesn’t walk into it or her lead/harness hooked up. Step outside and she’s told to stay as Harvey collects his stick. She doesn’t sit, but stands exactly where he left her with her harness down and the lead on her back. Once Harvey is ready, a one word command ‘forward’ and she’s off – at his pace – until they get to the road. She’s very aware if there’s a car coming and will the coast clear, she sets off. Had a car been coming she would have waited; likewise, if they are walking along a road, a path or pavement and a vehicle or bicycle comes towards them, Sunny will stop. She won’t move sideways as this would unbalance Harvey. Once the car/cycle has gone, she will move on. There are two types of walk – lead and harness. Walking on the lead allows her sniff about and if necessary stop to wee etc. Walking on the harness is when she is working and unless desperate for a wee, she won’t step away from Harvey’s side. When I met them, Sunny was principally just on the lead, with the exception of crossing the road.
Other amazing things, Sunny and many other guide dogs like her do, seem inbuilt as they appear totally intuitive, but show how intelligent these dogs are. Going downstairs, Sunny will travel at Harvey’s pace and after three steps, stop sideways in front of him, look back, check he’s balanced and ready to do the next three all the way to the bottom. When at home relaxing, she has half an eye on Harvey, even when asleep as she will regularly lie at his feet with her head resting on his foot, so if he gets up, she knows and will follow him about the house, just in case he might need her for something.
Sunny has some other special tricks up her sleeve; they are for the next edition about her London life.