The Saunders family's story

The Saunders family love animals. Dad Greg grew up with dogs. Mum Kath with cats. And their two daughters Tilly and Edith are obsessed with animals. When their rescue dogs passed away the family knew they wanted another pet. And a chance encounter with another volunteer breeding dog holder for Guide Dogs, led them to the perfect addition to their family.

It feels like a win-win. You get a beautiful, well-behaved pet and it’s brilliant that you'e doing something to help people. I think it’s the best volunteering role at Guide Dogs!
Greg, dad

Mum Kath was camping with a friend when she met her beautifully behaved dog. She later found out that their dog was a breeding guide dog mum, and after some research online Kath found out they lived close enough to the Guide Dogs National Centre in Leamington Spa to apply.

With husband Greg working from home, and Kath’s flexible working hours they both felt they had the time needed to dedicate to a new dog. On their first training trip to the National Centre, they were introduced to Ela, a golden retriever. Kath says: “When I saw her, I nearly cried. We both love golden retrievers.” And the very next day Ela came for a home visit in time to pick their daughters Tilly and Edith up from school. And she has stayed at their Shropshire home ever since.

The girls absolutely adore her, and our eldest Tilly especially. If she’s feeling nervous, she goes to find Ela and they sit next to each other, whispering into each other’s ear.
Kath, mum

Four years on and Ela has settled beautifully into family life. She loves going for runs with Greg, as well as lots of outdoor activities like camping. But Ela also has an important job to do for Guide Dogs, because she is a guide dog mum.

Her first litter of seven pups were born in lockdown. Kath and Greg say at the time it was a bit daunting because restrictions meant their Guide Dogs supervisor couldn’t visit. But Ela was a natural mother and three of her litter have already qualified as guide dogs.

The second time around the family felt more relaxed – although they were also being filmed for a Channel 5 series 'Puppy School for Guide Dogs'. Kath says watching the first pup being born was an exciting time. “You’re just waiting and waiting. Then finally you see them and it’s such a moment of relief.”

Having the puppies is like being a grandparent – you have them when they're cute and lovely, just discovering the world. Then when they start to get more active you give them to someone else. It’s the best of both worlds.
Greg, dad

Ela’s second litter was another seven pups – five boys and two girls – and the family loved giving them all informal names for the eight weeks they were with them. This time they chose a movie theme so there was a ‘Galaxy’ named after Guardians of the Galaxy and ‘Mario’ named after Super Mario.

What was it like filming for Channel 5 Puppy School for Guide Dogs?

Filming days were long, but the puppies didn’t know any difference. Kath does recall a funny moment when the cameraman tried to film the pups running. “He discovered they really liked his shoelaces, so he untied them and walked backwards so the puppies would chase him. Except he texted when he got home to say the shoelaces of his expensive shoes had been chewed completely through by the puppies!” Oops!

What would you say to someone considering becoming a volunteer breeding dog holder?

You don’t need to travel to the National Centre that often in a year, but you do need to be prepared for puppies chewing up your house, and of course handing them on at eight weeks old.

“If you want to do volunteering then don’t hesitate. You get a beautiful dog, but also it's so rewarding.”