Barry says he’ll never forget the first guide dog partnership he ever worked with. Walking down Coldharbour Lane, a busy road in Brixton, South London, he was shocked at how guide dog, Acorn, could ignore all the loud noises and smells to navigate obstacles in one of the most hectic places in the UK.
Barry grew up in Ireland and says he always knew he wanted to work with guide dogs. “Since I was young I thought it would be such a cool job. After Uni I travelled for a year and even applied to work with Guide Dogs Australia. When I got home I contacted Guide Dogs UK, and I’ve now worked here for 13 years.”
Barry is a Guide Dog Mobility Specialist (GDMS), which means he works with our dogs during the last stages of their training. His role involves matching guide dogs with their future partners and providing all the training they need to have a long and successful partnership together.
“After puppy raising, our dogs work with a Guide Dog Trainer for around 12-16 weeks to learn all the skills they need to guide someone. Then they come to me and I’ll complete around 10 weeks of training in a range of environments so I can understand their unique characteristics and who they could be matched with. I’ll consider lots of different factors, including the person’s lifestyle, walking speed, the type of transport they might need to take, the level of sight they have, their support network and the length of the routes they will work together.”
After making the life-changing call to tell someone he might have a guide dog for them, Barry arranges a series of visits and practice walks so they can see if the partnership is right.
“I then provide two weeks of intensive training for new partnerships at a hotel in London. We spend every day together, including the weekends, so I can pass on all the knowledge they need.”
“The first few days of a new partnership can be quite tough – that can be the hardest part of my role. They’re getting to know their dog, their dog is getting to know them, and it can be quite chaotic at first. And then suddenly it clicks – usually by about day three. They start to bond and learn about each other. By the end of the intensive training and into their third week together there is a calmness and working together becomes pleasant and enjoyable.”
Barry continues to work with new partnerships during their first year, providing regular visits and all the support they need to smooth out any issues or to learn additional skills or routes. After the partnership is established, they will be looked after by a local GDMS who is more familiar with their area.
Barry says he loves his job because he gets to work with both dogs and people. “As a Guide Dog Mobility Specialist I get to meet lots of different people all the time. We have to have good listening skills, be patient and we’re constantly adapting and finding new solutions. There’s a lot of emotion involved, so I’m always mindful that everyone’s situation is different.”