The Guide Dogs’ National Breeding Centre is preparing for one of its busiest Christmas periods on record after Covid-19 forced a halt to its breeding programme for the first time in more than half a century.
The charity paused activity for three months from March when the UK was hit by the first wave of the pandemic.
But every hour a person in the UK goes blind – and with two million people living with sight loss, the service has never been more in demand.
As a result, the centre is now in the process of raising more than 100 puppies under seven weeks old, with the dogs embarking on a life-changing ‘career’ helping people with sight loss to live the life they choose.
And it is expected that approximately 30 puppies and their mums will be at the centre over Christmas, along with 30 adult dogs.
Last year they didn’t have any puppies until December 30.
These adorable photographs of the pint-sized puppies were taken at the charity’s National Breeding Centre in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.
Among them was a litter of day-old puppies with their proud mum Olma, a five-year-old Labrador who has now had three litters.
To support the dogs, a team of around 20 staff will be working 24/7 at the breeding centre during the festive season.
Among those are Janine Dixon and Erica Cromack, who have more than 50 years’ experience working with guide dogs between them.
During their time, along with the other dedicated members of the team, they have helped raise more than 5,000 puppies.
Janine Dixon, said: “In my 25 years of working at Guide Dogs, there’s no doubt that 2020 has been one of the most challenging.
“Our team of dog care staff at the National Breeding Centre worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, to make sure our puppies, along with our guide dog mums and dads, received the highest level of care, despite lockdown restrictions.
“I’d like to say a massive thank you to the team for their amazing dedication and for ensuring our dogs are always at the heart of what we do.”
The charity also has a hospital block for specialist care and remains on call to take in any dogs who need additional post-operative or medical support.
Alongside the puppies on-site, dedicated volunteers will be caring for dozens more in their homes.
Matthew Bottomley, head of breeding operations at Guide Dogs, said: “The breeding programme has been operating for over 50 years and 2020 is the first time in history that we were forced to halt operations.
“Christmas is going to be a really busy time for us and as our dogs need care and attention around the clock, we’ll have staff and volunteers working 24 hours a day to ensure everything runs smoothly.
“Supporting a puppy to become a guide dog is a difficult but hugely rewarding job and we’re excited about getting our latest litters off to the best possible start in life.”
The latest litters of puppies for 2020 arrived at the centre last week.
At around 8 weeks of age, the puppies are placed with another volunteer for around 12-14 months of careful socialisation and training.
The puppy raisers house-train the young dogs, get them out and about in all sorts of different environments and teach them how to be well-behaved.
When they reach 14 months of age, they spend 16 weeks with a trainer learning the tasks required of a guide dog so that they can be partnered with a person with sight loss.
On an average year, Guide Dogs welcomes more than 1,000 puppies into the world.
And at any one time, the charity is responsible for 8,400 puppies and dogs –as a result, it costs more than £55,000 to support a guide dog from birth to retirement – with funding through initiatives like Sponsor a Puppy.
Matthew Bottomley added: “These are unprecedented times, and here at Guide Dogs we will continue to nurture and develop our puppies to help them go on to train as wonderful assistance dogs which play such a vital role in transforming the lives of people with sight loss in the UK.
“It wouldn’t be possible without the support of members of the public who have sponsored puppies as they go on a journey from a mischievous bundle of fluff to a fully-fledged guide dog.”
How to sponsor a puppy – https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/donating/sponsor-a-puppy