Companions Sandy and dog Chad rely on each other for guidance and friendship

Chad the guide dog is not at all what you expect when you imagine the type of dog that safely leads a blind person along a pathway, or across a road. He’s not a labrador like animal but a much bigger, fluffy ‘golden doodle’ - a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle!

Chad the guide dog is not at all what you expect when you imagine the type of dog that safely leads a blind person along a pathway, or across a road. He’s not a labrador like animal but a much bigger, fluffy ‘golden doodle’ - a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle!

Chad the guide dog is not at all what you expect when you imagine the type of dog that safely leads a blind person along a pathway, or across a road. He’s not a labrador like animal but a much bigger, fluffy ‘golden doodle’ - a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle!

Chad is a seven year old dog and he lives in Lagganstown, near Golden, with his companion Sandy Tomkins.

Sandy lost her sight as a result of a childhood illness and for the last few years Chad has been at her side as she goes about her daily life and even accompanied her every step of the way as she took a degree in Italian at UCC.

“He’s gorgeous and he loves working,” Sandy described Chad. It was because he is such a good worked that a few years ago Sandy decided to start studying at UCC so that she and Chad would have somewhere to go a few times a week. Now, she says, he even recognises commands in Italian! “I can wander with him and not know where I am and he is such a good worker I know I won’t get hurt by tripping or banging my head.”

A guide dog is different to a family pet and this is something Sandy explained to The Nationalist. “It’s incredibly important that you have that bond and work together as a team. There are four main rules with a guide dog: the owner is the only one who feeds the dog; the only one who grooms him; is the person who takes them to ‘use the loo’; and plays and allows them free running.

“Theses are the things that make the dog dependent on you. That mutual dependence makes the bond work. People have to respect it’s a one-to-one relationship. I play with Chad but Hugh, my partner, is to allowed play with him,” Sandy said.

It’s important for the public to know how to act around a guide dog. If they want to say hello, or pat the dog always ask the owner. A working dog can’t be distracted, their owners lives depend on this.

Sandy is originally from the UK, where she had two previous guide dogs, and says in Ireland people are very well aware of guide dogs and are extremely well behaved around them. She has never been turned away from a shop or restaurant when she has Chad with her, and has a special word of praise for the Iarnrod Eireann staff who were so helpful on her years of commuting to Cork.

The only place Chad can’t go is to a zoo, but he has been on a plane, to Italy, and he has accompanied Sandy to Knockanrawley national school where she gave a talk to the pupils. He loves children, she said. One Christmas she as returning from the UK and her flight was delayed. As children got tired and parents tried to amuse them one asked if a child could pat Chad. Within minutes there was an orderly queue of parents and children lining up to say hello and Sandy said she felt like Father Christmas!

Chad is not always recognised as a guide dog, especially if his coat is a bit longer. The harness used for guide dogs varies from country to country. Sandy says she likes the Irish one as it has a lot of webbing instead of leather and is lightweight. She also uses a dog collar called a ‘half check.’ When Sandy first got Chad he wasn’t fond of the harness because it messed his hair! At home Chad wears a collar with a bell, so that Sandy knows where he is and also so he knows he is ‘off duty.’

Chad is not quite unique, even though he was one of the first litter of golden doodles bred to be trained as guide dogs in Ireland, as his brothers are all ‘working dogs’ - three as guide dogs and one as an autism assistance dog.

He is Sandy’s third guide dog. Her first was a gold retriever called Gilda who came to her when she was 19 and at college. Gilda lived to be 19. Next she had ‘Anxious,’ a golden retriever/ lab mix who Sandy found it hard to get used to after so long with her first dog.

She was slow to get a guide dog when she moved to Lagganstown because they can’t ‘work’ on country roads, with the potholes she would have to walk in the middle of the road, and the lack of rural public transport means getting to town is difficult. However when Chad arrived Sandy said her neighbours and friends were really helpful and any time they were going in to Cashel or Clonmel they would invite Sandy and Chad along so they could walk the busy town streets.

Chad is so intune with Sandy now, and has a good vocabulary, that when she comes out of an exam at college and says ‘that was really bad’ Chad leads her straight to her favourite wine bar! And if a friend suggests they go for coffee Chad is off and the friend has to catch up!

A guide dog will improve all the time they are with their owner, if they get the opportunity, Sandy said.

In the UK guide dogs are taught a lot of words in their initial training, like ‘post box,’ in Ireland the training has what Sandy describes as ‘less frills’ but is a sold, basic training and then the dog and owner can build on that with what their particular needs are.

Matching a guide dog with its owner is a careful task for the people at Irish Guide Dogs. First they visit the person in their home to assess their character to better match the person with a dog, they might also want to know a little of the person’s lifestyle, again for matching with a suitable dog. For example a student might need a quiet dog who can lie still in lectures. The IGDB person will also go for a walk with the applicant to see if they can follow a guide. When a puppy becomes available you go to the IGDB centre in Cork and meet the dog and you might go for a little walk with them, to see if you are balanced as a team. The dog probably still has a month or so in training and after that time the person who is paired with him will stay in the IGDB centre with them for three or four weeks and they train together. From then on you and the dog are a unit.

There is a common misconception that you have to be totally blind to get a guide dog. In fact, only about 5% of people who are registered blind in Ireland are actually completely blind. Most people have some degree of residual vision.

Applications are accepted from people aged 16 years and older. There is no upper age limit.

You don’t have to have any experience with dogs – IGDB teach you everything you need to know.

IGDB services are free of charge and include: Guide Dog Programme -for people who are blind and vision impaired; Assistance Dog Programme -for families of children with Autism; Orientation and Mobility Training -long cane training; Independent Living Skills Training; The Next Step Programme for young adults starting out in work or college; Child Mobility Programme.

All services are provided free of charge.

You can contact the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind at the National Headquarters and Training Centre, Model Farm Road, Cork. Lo-call 1850 506 300 or email info@guidedogs.ie.