Companion dogs are dogs that have changed career from being a guide dog because it wasn’t right for them. They might have behaviours that make them unsuitable for guiding, such as not tolerating a guide dog harness, or health issues such as a skin condition, problems with their joints or anxiety. We’ll give you the right support to manage any issues they do have, but remember, no dog is perfect!
A companion dog could play a huge role in your life. It’s not just the friendship and support you’ll enjoy but also the boost in your confidence to get out and about with your family more.
In return, you’ll need to give your companion dog plenty of care and commitment throughout their lives – typically around 10-14 years. It’s also important to be sure you’ll have the energy to look after a big dog.
No. A companion dog will not have received the expert training required to work as a guide dog. We'll need to ask you to sign a legal agreement to ensure you don't use your companion dog as a mobility aid.
Our companion dogs are only available for people with a vision impairment. As we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic with social distancing measures, alongside the current challenges we face with resource, we've decided to grow our new companion dog service slowly, by first limiting this to people who have sighted support to ensure the person’s and dog safety while out and about with their dog.
Our plan is to expand the service through a series of pilots throughout 2021, which we'll constantly review and learn from to enable us to reach more and more people impacted by sight loss that may live alone or without sighted support.
The time it takes to be matched and paired up with a companion depends on the circumstances of each person and their family – and whether we have the right dog available, of course. As a guide, it should take between 8 to 10 weeks to be matched with your companion dog from when you first contact us.
Once you have undergone training, our experts will match you to a dog we feel is right for you. Similar to a pet dog, a companion dog is looked after and paid for by you and your family. After welcoming one of our friendly dogs into your home, we'll provide aftercare to support you.
Jo was a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor for 26 years before becoming a Canine Assisted Partnership Specialist. The companion dog service for adults presented some new challenges that she was ready to embrace.
What does a Canine Assisted Partnership Specialist do?
"My main job is to assess dogs that haven’t made it through guide dog training to see whether they would be suitable for other roles.
"I also inform people who are interested in a companion or buddy dog about our services, for example, what’s involved in owning a dog, how dogs communicate, how a dog might fit into their lives and so on."
How do you decide if a dog is suitable to become a companion dog?
"A companion dog is a well-behaved pet dog, so we’re looking for dogs that enjoy being around people, thrive around companionship, are easy to handle and have a nice balanced temperament.
"To establish whether a dog will be suited to life as a companion dog, we first get information from the last person who was training them. We find out why the dog didn’t make it as a guide dog, their social behaviour, how well they walk on a lead and their recall when off the lead.
"Ideally, we’d then spend time with the dog ourselves but sometimes that isn’t possible, so we’ll talk to the person who’s currently looking after the dog. We'll gather information from a lot of different people about the dog’s character, what the dog enjoys doing, and collect photos and videos of the dog. They’re all people who work or volunteer with our dogs, so they have a lot of knowledge and experience.
"The most frequent reason one of our dogs doesn't become a guide dog is because of their inconsistent attention when working, therefore they're not maintaining a consistent pace, for example, because they’re too busy sniffing out smells. It’s not something that matters with a pet dog but it's not ideal for a working guide dog!"
How do you find the right dog for an owner?
"Every dog has a different personality and character so we need to know what the prospective owner can provide for the dog and about their expectations.They might want a dog that’s going to play with the whole family, or they might be looking for comfort and affection.
"Some dogs are very quiet and don’t need much stimulation, others need more work put into them.
"It might be that a dog doesn't like travelling in a car, so we need to provide them with a home that's OK with that."
Does an owner need training before they get a companion dog?
"Yes, we try to put in as much as possible before the person gets their companion dog so that they know exactly what’s involved and have done the training.
"Some training is done by webinar but we do face to face training too. The first training session, which I really enjoy, is the first time you meet the people face to face and then you get to see the journey they go on and, if it works out, the difference their companion dog is making.
"The training session is really fun and hands on. We teach them how to handle and look after a dog, explain what equipment they’ll need, including toys, and they get to meet some of our dogs. They practice walking a dog on a lead, free running, recall and how to have fun with the dog.
"It’s important that the dog is well-behaved so that the family enjoys living with them. The relationship between a companion dog and an owner can be more relaxed than with a working guide dog."
What happens when you find a suitable dog for an owner?
"Once we’ve found a suitable dog, we call the prospective owner. It’s great phoning to say we have a match and knowing that the dog is going to make a difference in their life. We tell them all about the dog, for example, what games they like to play, describe their character and personality, and share any photos and videos we have of the dog. Then the prospective owner meets the dog and, after some further training, they can go home together."
Why do owners need further training?
"Training is all about helping new owners bond with their dog. Grooming is a key way to do that, as is playing games with the dog. We show the owners how to teach the dog games – like throwing a toy and getting the dog to retrieve it. It’s about doing things that the dog enjoys and finding ways to spend time together. We also pass on information about the dog’s previous routine as following that will help the dog settle into its new home.
"Obviously, it takes time for the dog to bond with their new owner but by going through the training, we can be pretty sure that the partnership will work."
Do you continue to support owners after they go home with their companion dog?
"We check in regularly with the new owner, either by phone or video, and we encourage them to call us if they’ve got any concerns. We call the day after they’ve gone home with the dog and again two weeks after that. We check how well the dog is settling in, how their sleeping, eating, walking on a lead, toileting and, as the partnership becomes more confident, we’ll discuss letting the dog off the lead too for some free running.
"After four weeks, we check on their progress with a video call and it’s at this point that we officially qualify them as a companion dog partnership. The aftercare continues throughout the life of the partnership, however, after six months and then yearly, we continue to check in with them about the dog’s health. We ask the family to keep a health record of the dog, so we can check that too."