In 2021 Guide Dogs marked 90 years of helping people with sight loss live the life they choose, and while there is much to celebrate, there are points of introspection.
Last year we created 37% more new guide dog partnerships, compared to 2020, and took action to ensure we can train more dogs and form more partnerships. This was achieved through the launch of our new Guide Dogs Academy to improve how we recruit, train, and develop our staff who deliver the guide dog service. We also got Born to Guide underway, the genomic research project which will increase our knowledge of our dogs’ future health and behaviour, and help us breed pups more suited to the role of a guide dog.
A range of services
We supported more than 4,000 existing guide dog partnerships, partnered close to 1,500 people through My Sighted Guide, provided more than 7,000 accessible books to families through our CustomEyes service, held nearly 3,000 orientation and mobility support sessions and provided advice and support on more than 42,000 occasions through our expert helpline Guide Line.
Beyond this, we accelerated our goal of reaching more people via digital channels, providing online information and advice to those earlier in their sight loss journey, and provided a digital learning programme, Tech for All, to nearly five thousand children and young people by giving them iPads and iPhones. We invested in our sites and technology to ensure we are set up to support those with sight loss for another 90 years and have developed new ways of measuring the impact we have.
But despite all this progress, we are still seeing and experiencing the ongoing effects of the pandemic – particularly when it comes to the breeding and training of our guide dogs. In all our 90 years, we have never had two years as tumultuous and challenging as 2020 and 2021.
Covid-19 forced us to make some very difficult decisions. Thankfully, the dedication and flexibility of our teams meant that as an organisation we were able to innovate and successfully pivot many of our services to minimise disruption and ensure we were still able to provide support to people with sight loss.
However, we did have to take the decision to temporarily stop our breeding programme for five months. With every decision we took, we tried to do what was right for our colleagues, service users, volunteers and our dogs.
Even when we restarted the breeding programme and were able to train our dogs in more normal circumstances, we faced significant challenges. It became evident that the lockdown conditions restricted volunteers and trainers in their ability to prepare the puppies for busy public spaces, which made the puppies ill-equipped to adequately support someone with sight loss. This smaller pool of suitable guide dogs has had an inevitable impact on the number of people now waiting to be trained and partnered.
While it is disappointing that we were not able to deliver our guide dog services in line with our original ambition in 2021, we are already seeing a steady recovery in the numbers of guide dog partnerships.
We are confident the investments we have made in our people, places and services mean we are in the strongest possible position, both in terms of reaching more people with our guide dog service, and extending our other valuable services, to help those with sight loss to live independently and well.