Guide dog carer on the pain and joy of puppy foster life

Puppy Frank cuddled up with two of his cuddly toys shortly after he was born

Frank the puppy currently represents the apple of Lorna Boyde’s eye – but in less than a year her heart will be broken when he leaves her to start a new life.

Nevertheless, it won’t stop the Bangor mother of two from doing it again and again.

Guide dog volunteer Lorna Boyde and dog Frank. Picture by Arthur Allison / Pacemaker Press

Golden retriever Frank – now 12 weeks old – is the 11th puppy Lorna and her husband Ivan have fostered as he takes his first steps to becoming a fully-fledged guide dog.

The job of a ‘puppy walker’ as Lorna puts it is to “bring up a secure and happy puppy who can go on to do its guide dog training properly”.

She gets food and vet expenses covered, but the role is unpaid.

When the dogs reach 12 to 14 months they leave their owners to go to the training centre in Forfar, Scotland, run by the organisation Guide Dogs.

Lorna, 59, said: “There’s tears with every single one. It breaks my heart. It was ridiculous with my first girl Lexi.

“I was in tears all of the time for months before we had to let her go away to Scotland.”

She added: “We’ve been able to keep in contact with almost all of the dogs we’ve brought up. People say to me, ‘how do you do it?’ and I say, ‘Well, you let your children go so that they can grow’. We’re doing the same with our dogs.”

The puppy training scheme began in Northern Ireland in 2010 and Frank represents the 200th puppy brought up by owners based in the Province. Lorna and Ivan also brought up the 100th pup – Echo.

Cath Munro, who takes the training classes for the puppies once a month in east Belfast, said: “It’s a bit of fun firstly, and it’s my opportunity to teach them basic obedience – sit, wait, down, stay, stand, heel. Most important though is the home visits I do because that’s when you have one to one time.”

Lorna said raising a guide dog puppy was very different from a family pet.

She said the strict guidelines for bringing up a guide dog including training it to go to the toilet – a ‘busy’ as it is known – in the same concrete area of the garden to make it easier for guide dog owners to clean up.

She said the pups also learn to sit and wait for their food and only begin eating when a whistle is blown three times.

Lorna, a beauty therapist, said: “We’ve had dogs all our lives. Our last two dogs died and we didn’t replace them because we were both working full time.

“When I came out of work we found out about the puppy walker scheme. We got picked to foster one of the first two pups – Lexi – when the scheme started in Northern Ireland.”

With both their children – Gary and Lyndsey in their thirties – Lorna said the puppies meant she could prolong the mothering process.

She added: “The reason I do it is because I speak to guide dog owners and they tell me what they get back from the dog. The guide dog is their eyes and also their partner, they become such a tight team.”

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