Guide dogs of the future

THEY have an image of being aggressive guard dogs, used to track criminals and patrol military compounds.

THEY have an image of being aggressive guard dogs, used to track criminals and patrol military compounds.

But a group of dog trainers in south Norfolk is aiming to change the stereotype of German Shepherds by preparing an elite few to be guides for blind people.

It is relatively unknown that the large dogs, which originated in Germany in the late 19th century, were the original guide dog before Labradors and Retrievers became more popular.

Local members of Pathfinder Dogs are now hoping to return Shepherds as common companions for blind and partially sighted people and meet a demand for their services.

The small charity, which was formed in 2003, is based in Lanarkshire, in Scotland, but has a growing presence in south Norfolk, with three trainee puppies being put through their paces in the district.

The organisation, which already has more than 90 blind people on its waiting list, is set to see its first dogs - Bonnie and Clyde -graduate in the New Year following a three year course.

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Susan Bircham, director of Pathfinder Dogs, who is raising nine-week-old Isis and 18-month-old Merlin at her home in Tivetshall St Mary said it was hoped to expand the charity in Norfolk, but was dependent on funding and donations.

'They were the first dogs used by Guide Dogs for the Blind and I think because of the size of them, people were a bit put off by them and they started with Labradors and Retrievers. We have surveyed 90 people that have Labradors and would like a Shepherd.'

'It costs �36,000 to buy and train a puppy to become a guide dog, which begins with socialisation from nine weeks to 24 months by visiting shops, restaurants, buses and trains, which is followed by six months of advanced training,' she said.

German Shepherds are commonly used by the police and military across the world.

Karen Jannece, of Banham, who is training 18-month Spook, said German Shepherds made better guide dogs, but took longer to develop.

'German Shepherds are very intelligent and very loyal. They are a one person dog, and more attentive than Labradors. They are easy to train and if it is trained to be aggressive it will bring out that nature. In truth they are very soppy and the most affectionate dogs,' she said.

For more information, visit www.pathfinderdogs.org.

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