Ninety years ago, two women set out to train a handful of dogs to support three blinded First World War soldiers.
In the decades since, their modest venture has grown into Guide Dogs UK – one of the most- loved organisations in the country.
Offering a lifeline to some of the two million Brits living with sight loss, the charity has trained 36,000 guide dogs and currently gives support to more than 5,500 people.
At any one time, it is responsible for 8,400 puppies and dogs.
On Monday, ahead of Wednesday’s landmark anniversary, two of its patrons – Love Island ’s Faye Winter and Countdown’s Susie Dent – urge readers to give it their support.
Explaining their own role in the charity’s work, they say it continues to need big-hearted volunteers and donations to maintain its services.
Susie, 56 – the master wordsmith in the Channel 4 quiz’s Dictionary Corner – told the Sunday Mirror: “You only have to talk to one guide dog user to appreciate the monumental impact the animals have.
“It allows a freedom that many with sight loss could never have contemplated. The loving relationship between human and dog is impossible to fully articulate.”
Guide dog owners do not pay, to ensure no one is excluded from help through a lack of funds.
But the cost of a single guide dog, from birth to retirement, is around £72,000 – which comes entirely from donations and legacies.
Faye adds: “They’re the biggest breeder of working dogs in the UK – but I don’t think enough light is shed on what they do and how they change the lives of so many people.”
The reality star, now an influencer with more than a million followers on Instagram, is a boarder for the charity – offering guide dogs in training a temporary home.
She is one of more than 16,000 volunteers.
Since 2017 she has fostered six dogs, for anything from several months to a year.
Saying goodbye in February to her most recent, Flossie, was the “hardest break-up of her life”, she says.
Speaking through tears Faye, 26, adds: “They’ve all helped me personally, being a comfort through things like break-ups. It makes their leaving easier knowing they’re giving someone this life they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
She tells how the third dog she homed, Ella, enabled a mum near Saltash, Cornwall, to do the school run.
Faye says: “She wouldn’t have been able to walk her five-year-old boy to school without Ella, who learned the route. She’s been blind since university, her last guide dog walked her down the aisle.
“For some, blindness can happen overnight – to adjust to that is huge. The dogs change everything.”
Susie got involved three years ago after being touched by one of the charity’s beneficiaries.
Craig, a regular in the Countdown audience, told her he was only able to get to the show thanks to his trusty guide dog Bruce.
Susie says: “Through Craig I’ve come to appreciate the difference Bruce has made to his life and the joy he brings. Working with Guide Dogs has really made me look up from my life and appreciate not just what I have but how I might be able to help.”
Her first campaign is still etched in her memory. She recalls: “It was alongside their engagement officer Dave Kent and his gorgeous Labrador retriever, Chad.
“They starred in a Christmas music video for the charity called Together We Shine. It had a line that sums up their work better than I ever could – ‘You let me be free; you let me be me’.”
The idea to train dogs to offer support was the brainchild of breeders Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond in 1931.
From a lock-up garage in Wallasey, Merseyside, they trained four German shepherds – Judy, Folly, Flash and Meta – to help three veterans blinded in the First World War.
Three years later their pioneering project was so successful that The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was formally founded. In 1940 they launched their first training centre and by 1956 had started to recruit volunteer puppy walkers.
A breeding programme began in 1960, with Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds the most common.
In the mid-Sixties the charity was introduced to a new generation when BBC children’s show Blue Peter launched an appeal to collect silver foil and milk bottle tops – funding two guide puppies and following their training.
Guide Dogs UK is now the UK’s No1 provider of services for children and young people with vision impairment.
But it caters for all ages – in 2020, the youngest was 14 and the oldest 97.
You do not need to have lost all your sight, or be registered blind or partially sighted, to benefit from its services.
Susie adds: “I hadn’t realised all the things they offer. Their large-print book service CustomEyes lets people read stories from Dr Seuss to Shakespeare.
“And their habilitation specialists can help with significant milestones. I remember hearing of Nell, who was one-and-a-half when she first had help.
“On her first day at school she had her habilitation supporter, Branwen, take her in and introduce her to her teachers. That level of personal help is invaluable.”
Faye adds: “For many people like me in their 20s, we have time to volunteer. Knowing you could completely improve someone’s life, why wouldn’t you?”
I’m fitness trainer thanks to Laura
Jaina Mistry was left in a coma for 10 days and emerged completely blind after a severe reaction to penicillin.
She was just 17 and studying for her A-levels.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that she was finally partnered with a guide dog, two-year-old black-lab cross Laura.
Jaina, 36, from Leicester, said: “Laura changed everything for me.
“She was by my side when I did fitness work to rebuild my strength, which led to me wanting to be a personal trainer.
“I didn’t care that no blind woman had ever done it before. Laura gave me that self-belief, which you can’t put a price on.”
A new leash of life for Archer, 8
Archer Leader was diagnosed with sight loss as a baby.
Anxiety and autism were later identified, making life yet more difficult.
But his mum Laura says getting a “buddy dog” – three-year-old retriever Nancy – last May transformed her eight-year-old son’s life.
Laura, 33, from Walsall, West Mids, said: “Before Nancy, Archer’s world was basically a two-metre bubble – he simply didn’t have the confidence to interact with the world, and shut himself away.
“It was crushing for me to see, with no way of helping fix things.
“With Nancy by his side, he can explore places he’s never been before, he constantly makes friends with people who ask about his buddy dog.
“Archer now loves drawing, loves school, and all he wants is to head out the door. He’s been transformed.”
Amazing new world
A car crash cost Gill Southgate her sight in 1974 – when she was just 18.
Getting her first guide dog – her beloved Ruby – gave Gill’s life a renewed purpose.
The medical secretary, now 65 and from King’s Lynn, Norfolk, said: “I got Ruby after I married. She gave me the confidence to be a mum, something I’d never have done when I was reliant on a cane to get around.
“With Ruby by my side I could take our kids to school, go to toddler groups. She opened an amazing new world to me.”