Training Guide Dogs for the Blind in France


Puppies in the Lot

If you love dogs, bringing up a puppy to be well-behaved and good company is a pleasure. It’s fascinating to see how they respond to kind, patient training, and the ultimate reward of a reliable dog that you can take anywhere is worth all the hard work. Puppies are so adorable – cute, cuddly, friendly and just yearning to be loved. Without firm discipline they turn into unruly teenagers and uncontrollable adults, jumping up at people, running away and destroying everything in sight. Dogs, like children, have different characters and temperaments. Certain breeds have specific characteristics, but even within breeds dogs differ in the way they react to training.

Since 2001 my husband Chris and I have been volunteer puppy walkers for the school for Guide Dogs for the Blind at Mérignac on the outskirts of Bordeaux. We collect a puppy at 2 months old, and are expected to turn it into an obedient, calm, confident dog by the time it’s a year old. The young dog then goes back to Mérignac to be trained by their professional staff, learning all the special skills a guide dog needs. At 15-18 months the dog will be carefully matched to a blind person, taking into account the person’s lifestyle and their character (and that of the dog). It’s impossible to describe how happy and proud you feel when you see ‘your’ little puppy transformed into this wonderful, life-enhancing companion. They give their blind owners so much joy and freedom. It makes all the hard work; puddles, chewed shoes and uprooted plants seem worthwhile. You just HAVE to take on another one!

Puppy walkers here, as in the UK, are unpaid volunteers who fit puppy walking into their daily lives. We have been in the Lot since 1991 and we work from home running a busy property management business, combining my skills as a Chartered Surveyor with my husband’s Mr Fix-it abilities. We also keep an eye on my mother who lives nearby – she was aged 83 when she sold up and moved here! Our busy social life revolves around classic car and motorbike clubs, my dancing with various French folk groups, and the usual round of apéros, dinners and barbecues. I am often called on by local Mairies for translation services and to explain aspects of the French system to bemused British residents.

When a two-month puppy first arrives we spend time settling in the youngster and getting the all-important toilet training sorted. This can only be done with constant care and attention – and patience with the inevitable lapses – so I arrange to spend more time in the office rather than on site. We take the pup into local shops, to the bar, up in the lift at the Mairie, to the village school as the children come out – anything to accustom it to everyday noise and bustle.

Having a puppy makes you very tidy, as anything lying around is liable to be chewed or played with – shoes, remote controls, hoover accessories and trailing houseplants are favourites. Even so doormats go walkabout, plant pots are emptied and garden shrubs are pruned with gay abandon and a cheerful wag of the tail! There are however long periods of peace and quiet as young puppies, like babies, sleep a lot.

As the puppy grows his horizons widen as we take it to markets and town centres. I’ll take the pup with me in the car when carrying out security checks on second homes and opening up houses for guests. For safety the dog is left in the car when, say, strimming is in progress or Chris is tiling a bathroom, but this is training too, as the dog has to accept being alone. A decent dog guard is essential, as a bored pup would happily rip through a car interior in no time.

Once the puppy is fully house trained and sufficiently well behaved I start taking them into more shops and offices with me. Leclerc and Leader Price on the outskirts of Fumel always welcome the pups, and it’s important they get used to the ambiance and process of supermarket shopping. To go into shops the pups wear a cotton jacket bearing the international guide dog logo and the words ‘FUTUR CHIEN GUIDE D’AVEUGLE’, and I carry a guide dog school ID card. I often have to deal with public services, anywhere from the friendly local Trésor Public to offices in Cahors such as the Préfecture and the architects of ‘Bâtiment de France’. The pups come with me, and I have found they can helpfully melt the hearts of even the meanest bureaucrat.

At weekends they soon get the hang of preparations for a classic car or motorbike sortie, and are quickly in the back of the car on a Sunday morning. At the traditional rally casse croute of pain de campagne, paté, jambon de pays, boudin & cabecous they make sure to sit with one paw raised in cute begging mode. It never fails to work.

Puppy walking families – familles de tutelle – are fully supported by the school’s professional puppy staff. We are given a comprehensive set of instructions and masses of helpful advice, and the team are always available to answer any queries. The young pups are visited at home, and at 4-5 months are assessed on a walk through the centre of Bordeaux. Later they spend short training periods in school, which also accustom them to kennel life. We use a standard list of basic commands such as assis, pas bouger, en avant, to ensure all dogs going into school are used to the same words. Once a month there is a puppy class at the school. These are great fun, and aside from the formal obedience sessions there’s the opportunity to swop experiences and discuss problems with other families. We also share information via a Yahoo! Group.

To find out more about puppy walking and about guide dogs in general you can contact me (details below) or go to and click on ‘Ecole chiens-guides’. The school is always in need of puppy walkers, and also of families to care for their breeding dogs and bitches. It doesn’t matter if your French is limited. Food and veterinary treatments are paid for by the school, all you are asked to give is your time and your love.

Guide dogs have to be superbly fit with the right temperament for the job, so it is inevitable that even with a selective breeding programme some puppies are not suitable. These are offered to loving families for adoption as pets. Retiring guide dogs are often in need of a home too. If you could welcome one of these lovely dogs do get in touch with me, or the school.

© Mary Hall 2007

Rue Paul Tourseiller
46700 Duravel
tel/fax 0033 (0)5 65 24 66 46

See also:

Poor Paws – Rehoming Dogs in the Lot and Quercy
Les Amis des Chats – Caring for Cats and Kittens in south west France
Real Lives – More real life stories from the Lot and Quercy
Living in France – The FrenchEntrée guide to French Life

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