Guide Dogs: What it takes to train a life-saver

It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to stand before a group of strangers and explain in detail the life-changing events that led to you permanently losing the entirety of your sight.

It’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told very often, and to hear it first-hand from 25 year old Rachel Nafzgar at the Guide Dogs Training School was an emotional and insightful experience for many of us at Opus Energy.

Rachel was kicking off our day visit to the Leamington Spa dog training centre and headquarters of Guide Dogs, the charity that works relentlessly to improve the freedoms of blind or partially-sighted individuals.

Opus Energy employees experience guide dog leading and practice safe guiding techniques.

Opus Energy employees experience guide dog leading and practice safe guiding techniques.

Guide Dogs has been chosen by Opus Energy employees as one of the charities that we’ll be supporting, with the aim of raising at least £15,000 by the end of the financial year in 2016. After discovering that each guide dog costs a staggering total of £50,000 to make the transformation from excitable puppy to reliable, loyal companion, it’s safe to say we’re keener than ever to hit (and hopefully exceed) our fundraising target.

Some of the Opus Energy employees try out sight-impairment goggles.

Some of the Opus Energy employees try out sight-impairment goggles.

Having learnt about the wide spectrum of vision problems that people live with on our arrival at the Warwickshire hub, we couldn’t think of a better way to start our visit than hearing Rachel tell us all about how getting Nikita, her black lab guide dog, granted her a new lease of independence.

After already trying university, and finding it hugely challenging in a practical sense, having Nikita by her side allowed Rachel to revisit and flourish during her time there. Rachel finished her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, became head of the volunteering society, and in 2012 was chosen to bear the torch for the London 2012 Paralympics. Now she works as a Mobility Team Service Representative for Guide Dogs and has introduced Nikita to countless numbers of people across the UK in order to spread awareness.

Opus Energy's first introduction to the Guide Dog puppies.

Opus Energy’s first introduction to the Guide Dog puppies.

Having recently lost the last remaining portion of her vision, Rachel relies on Nikita for the basic freedom of movement that many of us take for granted. But it took a lot of hard work to get Nikita to where she is today. We met staff members who work day in and out to help train puppies as young as 8 weeks old, who are then helped by countless volunteers who take dogs into their homes for further training. In fact, just 1 in 10 of the people at Guide Dogs gets paid for the work they do – everybody else is helping on a purely voluntary basis. Given that the charity receives no outside funding or government support, they are entirely reliant on the generosity of individuals such as these.

The scrupulous training from passionate workers means that the dogs are ready to start assisting an individual at around roughly 14 months of age. For that person, it’s likely that their entire way of life will change. A previous meeting with a guide dog owner brought to light the immense joy and relief that his dog brought him; replacing anger, depression and dependence – “He saved my life for sure.”

Guide Dogs Leamington Spa Opus Energy

A guide dog in training.

However, some statistics highlight that as few as 2% of people who are blind or visually impaired have a guide dog. Given that nearly 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss, a huge number of individuals are fighting incredibly hard for their freedom of movement.

Opus Energy employees receive their certificates with Rachel Nafzgar and her dog Nikita.

Opus Energy employees receive their certificates with Rachel Nafzgar and her dog Nikita.

If you’d like to find out any more about the crucial work that Guide Dogs does, make sure to visit their website or like their Facebook page. We can’t wait to kick-start our fundraising support for this life-changing support network.