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An illuminating day
- Two OUR DOGS’ luminaries were guest speakers at the recent
Guide Dogs for the Blind Breeders and Puppy Walkers Seminar

“FAR TOO good for students, I should be living here!” This was the tongue-in-cheek assessment from OUR DOGS columnist Robert Killick when confronted with the oak-panelled splendour of the stately home that houses the Warwickshire College, in the pretty village of Moreton Morrell.

Robert’s presence at the imposing building on a warm, sunny spring day was as one of three guest speakers for the latest Guide Dogs for the Blind Breeders and Puppy Walkers Seminar.

He was joined by fellow speakers in the persons of OUR DOGS Chief Reporter Nick Mays and Simon Blythe, the GDBA Breeder Centre Manager.

All three speakers were introduced by the GDBA’s Breeding Quality Co-ordinator, Neil Ewart, to a 130-strong audience, mainly consisting of guide dog puppy walkers, all of whom were very receptive and appreciative.

Simon Blythe was the first speaker of the morning session and gave a PowerPoint presentation – with cute moving graphics in places – on the latest developments in the GDBA’s Breeding and Training programme.

Simon explained that additional screening measures had been introduced for potential breeding stock in order to get the very best from the breeding programme. The target was to breed and place more pups per year and would necessitate increasing the number of brood bitches from 220 as at present to 250 in the near future.

There were several factors to be borne in mind, as outlined in a series of graphs displayed by Simon. One of the points of concern was that of the decline in the number of puppies placed with blind owners, down from a high of 1,200 in 1996 to 1.050 in 2003. The training time for dogs had improved however, and was down from 41 weeks in 1998 to 33.5 weeks in 2003.

Added to this, the time in which unsuitable dogs were rejected had also improved, thanks to better screening and identification programmes, and was down from 29 weeks in 1996 to just 15 weeks in 2003.

Simon pointed out that a full-scale review of guide dog rejections in the year 2002 had taken place early last year, with input from training staff and walkers. The conclusion was that a staggering 40% of ‘faulty’ dogs could have been removed from the training programme a lot earlier than they were, and this point was to be addressed in subsequent years. The success rate of training suitable dogs had declined from a high of 76% in 1997 to 62% in 2000, although the success rate was creeping up again and stood at a much more acceptable 71% in 2003.

‘So the overview is rejection times are down and success rates are up,’ said Simon, ‘We also have a better rate of identifying unsuitable dogs that are withdrawn from service as working guide dogs in under 3 years. There were 210 such withdrawals in 1998, but it has dropped to 140 in 2003.’

Interestingly, out of the dogs rejected in 2003, 69% of these were temperament problems, whilst 31% were for health problems.

Simon then explained in some detail about the GDBA’s new Puppy Aptitude Tests (PAT Tests), which would allow the GDBA to select suitable dogs for breeding and also to allow early identification of dogs that should be removed from the programme.

‘The PAT tests are based on the recognised Campbell Volhard Tests’, said Simon. ‘Dominance, shyness and over-excitability are quickly identifiable and will be logged in a database for our reference.

The presentation showed how young puppies are tested for dominance by being gently rolled onto their backs by a trainer, and ‘elevation dominance’ where they are held in a prone position off the floor by the trainer. Retrieval is also considered, showing whether the dog is willing to retrieve an object and bring it back to the trainer.

The presentation continued with an illustrated explanation of the various Character Aptitude Tests (CAT) devised to gauge the dogs’ stress resilience, recovery rate from stressful situations and to identify any aggressive tendencies.

Simon concluded his very interesting talk with details of how the GDBA was not limiting itself to breeding and using Golden Retrievers and Labradors. Breeds such as the Border Collie, Standard Poodle, Chesapeake Bay Retriever and even the Longhaired Weimararner – which is temperamentally different to its better-known shorthaired counterpart – were being actively considered, as were crosses between the various breeds.

Legally speaking

The next speaker was OUR DOGS Chief Reporter Nick Mays, who spoke at length about dogs and the law. Nick started with an amusing parallel of the pointlessness of Breed Specific Legislation by detailing how one of the finer points of the fairytale of the Sleeping Beauty was often overlooked; how the Princess’s father King Stefan enacted the Dangerous Spinning Wheels Act to prevent his daughter from pricking her finger and sleeping for 100 years… and how such a law would have led to cart wheels and carriage wheels being confiscated and their owners fined because they were, in fact, ‘spinning’ wheels – not to mention the heartache and financial ruin to the textile industry caused by the mass destruction of the kingdom’s spinning wheels.

Nick went on to detail many of the most horrendous cases brought against dogs and their owners under the hated 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, including ‘Tyler’, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross dragged from his owner’s home by police in the early hours of the morning as an illegal Pit Bull ‘type’, later destroyed and his body thrown back on his owner’s doorstep in a bin liner, ‘Otis’ the so-called PBT ‘type’ in a car – the car being a public place in the eyes of the law, and of course, Dempsey, the ‘vomiting Pit Bull’.

Nick pointed out to the audience that Labradors and Labrador crosses had often fallen foul of the DDA, with a number of dogs being seized as PBT ‘types’ under Section 1 of the Act or seized as ‘dangerously out of control’ under Section 3. In order to demonstrate the unfairness of the application of the Act and the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ reversal of the burden of proof, Nick called upon his fellow speakers Simon Blythe and Robert Killick to enact a courtroom scenario of cases brought under both sections. Neil Ewart presided in magisterial fashion as the trial judge who was swayed by the eloquent arguments of Robert’s character, the eminent prosecution expert witness; vet Dr Robert Killemoff, who had examined 10,000 Pit Bulls at his surgery. ‘Was this in the last year or the last month?’ enquired Nick, in his bewigged role as Prosecution Barrister. ‘Oh no,’ replied Dr Killemoff, ‘In the last week!’

The role of the hapless Section 1 dog was played by Black Labrador ‘Buster’ (a Guide Dog reject now privately owned) whilst GDBA Stud Dog ‘Trueman’ played the Section 3 Golden Retriever.

Continuing at a swift pace with other aspects of canine law, Nick took in Dog Registration, discrimination against Guide Dogs, dog theft, bans against dogs in various public places and the further criminalisation of dogs under the Government’s Hunting Bill. He concluded by returning to his fairytale theme saying: ‘I don’t believe all politicians are on the make, I believe – or would like to believe – that most of them want to do their best for society, at local, regional or national level, but when all’s said and done, they get well paid to do so. If they want the cushy, lucrative jig again, then they’ll listen to you….

‘We’ve nothing to be ashamed of. We’re responsible dog owners. Make them listen, because our voice counts! And when they listen, when they realise that Dangerous Spinning Wheel Acts and Dangerous Dogs Acts, BSL, Identification and all the rest does not work, when they respect dogs and dog owners and finally get the message, THEN, maybe THEN we can have our fairy tale ending. Maybe then we can turn the last page, close the book and we can tell our children with absolute certainty that They All Lived Happily Ever After.’

A life with dogs

Lunch followed, with much cheerful chatter between guests – although some of the speakers were reputed to have absconded with Neil Ewart to a local hostelry where, one assumes, they disseminated their keynote addresses in a suitably sober and scholarly fashion.

The afternoon session got under way in tremendous style with Robert Killick speaking in riotously amusing form about his life with dogs, starting off with his early life before the war (he clarified this as being the Second World War) as part of a farming family where dogs were very much working animals. His first encounter with dogs as anything other than working animals came when, at the age of 17 ‘I went to fight the Germans at the request of His Majesty, I must have been good at it, because they gave up!’

Robert then went on to tell how, whilst stationed in barracks on the border of Austria and Italy he was befriended by a Chow-Chow who declared – in German – that Robert was his person. The dog was duly named Butch and accompanied Robert everywhere, even on parade. It was on one such parade that Robert, awaiting inspection by senior officers with Butch at his side, lost his ongoing fight with the Naughty Little Boy who lived inside his head, causing him to talk to Butch out of the corner of his mouth, which caused Butch, in turn, to make a noise.

‘The Sgt major came over to me and enquired whether I would mind awfully keeping that dog quiet,’ related Robert. ‘I replied ‘I AM trying to keep him quiet!’ The Sgt major got cross about this insolence and began to abuse me in no uncertain terms. Butch decided he didn’t like this and decided to defend me – by biting the Sgt major in the gonads.’

To roars of laughter from the audience, Robert related how he was thrown in the slammer and Butch was sent to barracks 10 miles away, but soon returned later that day. The Army capitulated and let Butch stay with Robert for the next two years, even accompanying him in his armoured car. At one point, a request went out from the regiment’s top brass for hunting dogs to run with mounted officers on foxhunts, whereupon Robert was duly put in charge of the dogs. Butch in fact, joined the hunt, running with the foxhounds with great enthusiasm! When Robert was informed by His Majesty that his services were no longer required, he returned home and Butch remained in the barracks as a regimental mascot until the end of his long life.

Robert continued with great aplomb, detailing how he had gone into acting against his father’s wishes ‘Because the girls were much prettier,’ and how he encountered many dogs who were part of the variety acts he managed in his acting career which went ‘from rags to nakedness in 30 years’.

Later Robert met and married his wife Jo, a dancer. Sadly, Jo had an accident and couldn’t dance any more, so the couple bought a cottage in West Wales. Robert commuted from their home in Wimbledon to the cottage to get it ready before they moved in and felt lonely – a fact that directly led to him buying a Welsh Terrier… and thus began his show career, which saw him eventually breed and exhibit many champion Welsh Terriers, also qualify to judge and give tickets in the breed.

In typical Killick fashion, Robert went on to explain how politics played a large part in dog judging – as indeed they did in everyday life. Warming to his theme, Robert took in the whole countryside/urban debate and the anti-hunting sentiments of many politicians; ‘It’s up to us to make sure the Nanny State does not take over, and to let us sensible people live our lives,’ he declared, to great applause. ‘You can’t take the hunting gene out of dogs. You might cover it, but it’s still there. Dogs aren’t puppets, they are living creatures and we should never lose the opportunity to remind politicians of this!’

Thus ended a very entertaining and informative seminar with three different speakers, all of whom had one very clear thing in common with their audience – a love and understanding of dogs.