Oats, The Guide Dog, Warwickshire Life
PUBLISHED: 23:33 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013
After a working life Oats, the guide dog, always knew he would have to retire one day. What he didn't know was that the young upstart brought in to replace him would have such an impact on his life. He tells his side of the story.
Imagine being in your twilight years and waking up in your bed one morning to find you've got company in the shape of a brown-eyed, silky haired teenager! Some old age pensioners would think they'd passed away in the night and were resident in heaven! But for me it as a very dark day indeed. Dark, because until that fateful day I was a working Labrador guide dog - and the arrival of the sleek young female in question marked my official retirement from service.
I am Oats, born August 26 1999, to mother Mabel and father Henry. For a glorious decade I have been guiding my handler Sharon around the picturesque village of Kingham in Oxfordshire.
I can still remember vividly the day we met at the Leamington Centre in Warwickshire when I was just 18 months old. It was April 2001. Sharon came into the room and for me it was love at first sight. I had been specifically matched to Sharon because I was deemed good with children - a gentle giant.
After three weeks of getting to know each other at the Leamington Centre Sharon took me home to meet her husband Rob, and children Ruth (6), Robert (3) and baby Ruad'h. Not that we didn't have a few teething problems when she first took me home.
First, pavements - or lack of them. I had been trained on the wide pavements of Leamington. When I first got to the country where there are no pavements, I helpfully led Sharon right down the middle of the road - how was I to know? I just thought it was a very, very wide pavement.
Secondly, horses. I met my first horse when it was tethered outside the Kingham Village Shop while its owner popped in for Polo mints for her charge. Fed up with waiting however, the impatient filly tried to get through the door just as Sharon and I were trying to make our exit. One horse, one dog, one human, one doorway - something had to give.
Today Sharon likens me to an elder statesmen rather like Winston Churchill - strong minded and here to do the job in hand, Ushi - the new dog - is more of a flighty, excitable creature. Take our different styles at helping Sharon cross the road. I lead Sharon to the pavement and manfully position my body to stop her stepping into the road. Only when I am absolutely sure it is safe for her to do so do I start to cross. Ushi's approach is similar but I'm not completely sure she wouldn't be distracted if a good looking spaniel happened to come along.
My retirement was always inevitable as I approached the grand old age of ten this year. But it was prematurely brought on by something of a disaster when Ushi came for her trial weekend to learn the ropes.
Things were going fine until we were playing on the Kingham Green - even guide dogs have to have some fun you know - I lunged for the ball and my legs went from under me. It was not my finest hour. Carried home by Rob, the vet was called and recommended a lot of rest to get me back on my feet.
A space in the sitting room was made for Ushi's lilac bed and the phrase 'every dog has its day' seemed ever more poignant.
Miraculously the feeling in my legs returned. Within a few weeks I could get around and about but in terms of a working dog for Sharon - there was a new pup on the block. Ushi had well and truly got her paws under the table.
I am now officially retired. I still manage to muscle my head into the harness some days when Sharon takes it down from the peg. But she soon finds out it's me instead of Ushi because I can't really get Ushi's new harness past my neck. Nice try she says - but not today Oats. Bristling with discontent I seek comfort on my blanket.
Ushi's not really a bad stick. She plays a mean game of tug and as the older dog I have been able to teach her a few new tricks. In my day we were taught to lie under the table when our handlers were eating. The thinking was that other diners wouldn't be tripping over us. Modern thinking has done away with this but I have taught Ushi that it's a good trick - as long as I bagsy first bite at the crumbs that fall from a great height.
What I miss most as a working guide dog are our trips to Chipping Norton. I would lead Sharon along the pavement to Boots and W.H. Smiths. I always stopped hopefully outside the butcher's and the baker's - just in case. But my favourite shop was upstairs at Harper's which sells dog food, pigs' ears and bones! Sharon may have wanted to look at the household things on the ground floor, but we always seemed to manage a detour up the stairs first.
And of course I miss the school run. I always enjoyed being loved by the children at drop off and pick up time and I especially love the sharing assemblies. I learned that rolling around on my back and placing a well aimed kick in a child's back would earn me minutes of essential tummy rubbing time.
Usually retired guide dogs move on to another home but Sharon pleaded for me to be able to stay. Having grown up with her young family of three, she believed I would pine if I was taken away. I'm much more than a mere dog she tells me - I'm a true companion. Of course I miss my daily duties which are now undertaken by Ushi but I enjoy my life with Sharon and her family and as Ushi is finding out - there's plenty of life in the old dog yet!
Oats was talking to Tracy Watkins.
About Guide Dogs:
There are approximately 70 stud dogs and 250 brood bitches who live in the homes of volunteers close to the Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre, near Leamington Spa.. The dogs live in family homes as pets and are transported to the centre when they are needed on the job - so to speak. Ufton holds the record for fathering the most pups to date - an amazing 470. Lorna holds the record for the largest litter - 15 pups (twice the average).
The Guide Dogs District Team in Leamington (covering Leicestershire, Warwickshire, and Northamptonshire) currently has 240 guide dog partnerships (Warwickshire has 90).
There are 29 puppy walkers in Warwickshire who care for pups from the age of six weeks to one year and give them their basic training. This involves getting them used to all the sights, sounds and smells that they will encounter when they are a working guide dog. There is no shortage of either guide dogs (thanks to prolific breeders such as Ufton), or handlers, but the cost of training each dog is over 40,000.
Those dogs that don't make the grade become assistance dogs for the disabled, hard of hearing or police dogs.
Each guide dog has a working life of approximately six to seven years and all handlers are given the option of keeping their dogs as pets at the end of their working lives.
Find out more about The Guide Dogs Experience on Saturday 18 July from 10am - 5pm at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire