Students from Agora International School visit the ONCE Foundation’s Guide Dog’s Centre

On the morning of Wednesday 12 June students in Year 4 at Agora International Madrid’s primary department visited the ONCE Foundation’s guide dog training facility in Boadilla del Monte. This is the only centre of its type in Spain and the staff there are responsible for choosing, caring for and training guide dogs for the blind and helping to facilitate the process of helping the guide dog’s new owner work effectively with their new companion. The centre employs 14 members of staff to carry out this important and commendable work; 11 carers and 3 specialist trainers.

During our trip, staff at the centre explained to the children that the complete training process takes about two years. For the first year of their lives the puppies live with an adoptive family, learning how to socialise and live with humans and to get used to various environments such as going to the library, using a bus, accessing shops, and so on. In the second year, the young dog spends more and more time at the training centre and less time with the host family and they start to learn the specific skills that they will need to become a guide dog. The final month of training is spent working with their new owner and preparing these extraordinary animals to become responsible companions and guide dogs, staying with the same owner for the rest of their lives.

To the great delight of the children, our visit started with the puppies that had recently arrived at the centre, followed by a tour of the facility and a training demonstration with Tilo, a beautiful black Labrador, who amazed all of us with his intelligence and fantastic guiding abilities. The Labrador is the breed that is most commonly used for this type of work (more than 80% of guide dogs are Labradors) although other breeds are also used, including Alsatians, also known as German Shepherd dogs.

At the end of the demonstration the children were invited to meet some of the guide dogs that had been specially selected by their handlers and to try some of the training techniques that they had been shown, including re-enacting situations common in daily life such as crossing the road, negotiating an obstacle, going up stairs or stepping on to a bus. This was an amazing experience for our pupils and one which they are unlikely to forget!

The children were surprised at how clever the dogs are and the trainers were happy to answer their questions about the dogs, how they are cared for, the training programmes and the incredible work that they do.

In the words of the teachers who accompanied the trip; “It has been a fantastic experience for the children and has helped them to become more understanding, respectful and compassionate, and to be more aware of the difficulties faced by people with physical disabilities such as blindness”.

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