Guide Dogs in training are a common sight on the streets of Forfar. Members of the organisation train their charges on the town’s thoroughfares with the eventual aim of giving blind people their independence.
Of all the dogs put forward for the training, 70% will pass and go on to be the eyes for visually impaired people across the country.
But what of the 30% that fail? The majority either go back to their puppy walker or go on to become household pets, but a few go on to have successful working lives in other areas.
Nicola Smith is one of the rehoming officers at the Orchardbank training facility. She assesses each dog deemed unsuitable for working as a Guide Dog to see if they would be suitable for another working role.
“The dog supply manager, Logan Anderson, assesses and withdraws dogs from training,” she explained.
“When a dog is withdrawn from training the rehoming officers always assess the dog for another working home, unless it has a health problem.
“Rehoming officers at guide dogs have a list of criteria needed for other working homes (police, hearing dogs, support dogs, prison service and so on) so if we think that the dog might be suitable then we will contact the appropriate working home and invite them to come and look at the dog for themselves.
“If suitable, then they take the dog away to start its training for a new career. If the dog is not successful in its new career then it comes back to guide dogs for rehoming.”
So far this year the centre has placed five dogs in working homes. Two have become service dogs for owners with other disabilities, one has joined the British Transport Police and two have taken up positions with the dog section of Fife Constabulary.
The two Fife dogs, Glade (since renamed Jade) and Wilma, have now been successfully trained for police work; one as a drug detection dog and the other searching for explosives.
Both dogs were withdrawn from training due to being too easily distracted. While this would not be a problem for a sighted handler it would have been unsafe for a guide dog owner.
After being withdrawn, they were put in the hands of Nicola.
“Both girls were very bright, responsive and willing to please, so I tried them with a toy to see if they had any interest in playing with or looking for it and they both loved the game.”
Sergeant David McKelvie of Fife Constabulary’s dog section had previously contacted the centre to see if they had any dogs suitable for police work. Nicola introduced him to both the dogs, who have now finished police training and joined the team based in Glenrothes.
Jade is now under the care of Stephen Randall, while Wilma works with Paul McIlroy.
The dogs have been with the force since the spring, when they were around 16-17 months old.
“We look for a dog to train that’s about a year old,” explained Stephen. “Possibly slightly older but not too much younger because we want a bit of maturity in them already.
“Although they are still young dogs we don’t want them having the puppy head on and running about, we want them to be able to concentrate on a task that we set them to do so when we start playing games with them, which is how we train them, they just think they are playing games, they don’t realise they are working.
“But we have to have enough maturity that the game and the working don’t become boring for them or they get distracted easily.”
Dogs which have a tendency to keep their nose to the ground, or ones that are easily distracted are not good to Guide Dogs, but make perfect police dogs.
“The majority of what we do is based on nose work if a dog isn’t prepared to use its nose then it’s no good to us.
“We look for a dog with naturally high drive and on top of that high drive a desire to interact with toys,” continued Stephen.
Once a dog has been identified as having potential, the police train them to associate a reward with certain scents
“The drug course we can do in force,” explained Stephen. “We did a five week course with Wilma from scratch because she didn’t know anything about the work.
“She can now search and locate all the current drugs that are on the market and we have controlled samples of each drug to train the dog with.”
Wilma qualified in November, behind Jade who qualified in June. Both dogs now undertake operational duties throughout Fife
Stephen said: “We are reactive to calls, so if there’s something happening in Fife then we’ll respond.
“We use the dogs to do different types of searches – building searches, vehicle searches, we also do open area searches and route searches, which means searching areas alongside roads. Anything that needs searched, we’ll search it.
“We have training throughout the year so that we know if there was something there the dog would definitely indicate it
“We try and expose the dogs to as many different environments and scenarios as possible so when it comes to real life, whatever that situation is, we’ve tried our best to expose them to something similar, if not the same thing, so when they are doing it for real we know the dog is going to do it because they’ve done it in training.”
The team also work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, checking goods coming into the country.
While the pass rate for trainee Guide Dogs is 70%, the pass rate for police dogs is even lower.
“Our pass rate is a lot less than the Guide Dogs because we expect an awful lot of them, not every dog is suited to do it,” said Stephen.
“The Guide Dogs do an excellent job, when you see what they do for their owners – it’s as important as what we do but for different reasons.”
Happily Jade and Wilma are both enjoying their new careers and settling in comfortably to life as a working dog.
“The life of a police dog is exceptional,” concluded Stephen.
“It’s everything a dog would do naturally if they were part of a pack. We tap into its natural abilities using it’s nose, searching, tracking and biting which it would do if it was killing prey
“It’s a fantastic life, it’s the best life a dog can have because they are doing everything they would do naturally on a regular basis.
“It’s interesting, varied work, it’s a rewarding job – you get a lot back from the dogs, they just love it.”