Wigan schoolgirl overcomes her fear to help care for trainee guide dog

A couple who wanted to help their daughter face her fear of dogs had no idea of the impact it would have on their whole family.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 12:30 pm

For the McNamara family cannot imagine their home without a dog now, after their four-legged friend helped them to survive the stresses of lockdown and home-schooling during the coronavirus pandemic.

Victoria and Carl McNamara, both 37, decided to start fostering guide dogs in training in June 2019 to help their nine-year-old daughter Esme, who was frightened of dogs.

And it did not take long for the creature to make a difference.

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Esme and Casper

Victoria said: “Esme was petrified of dogs and because we live near the Guide Dog centre in Atherton, we started fostering.

“Within a day of having our first dog Buddy home, Esme was on the floor stroking him. He stole our hearts within a few hours.”

Charity Guide Dogs provides support for people who are blind or partially sighted, including by training guide dogs to provide vital daily assistance.

There are four guide dog training schools across the country, with the centre in Atherton supporting more than 400 dogs since it opened in 2009.

Victoria, Carl and Esme McNamara at home with trainee guide dog Casper

The dogs attend training at the centre from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and they then stay with the family overnight and at weekends.

It is a chance for the animals to socialise and take part in family life, until they are ready to move onto the next stage of training.

Carl said: “The dogs provide extra fun on family walks and their different personalities make each one special and memorable in their own way.”

The family have so far welcomed four dogs, named Buddy, Dev, Ralph and now Casper, a yellow labrador cross golden retriever.

During the first national lockdown the training of guide dogs had to stop for several weeks, so the family kept Ralph at home with them.

He proved to be a great support for their mental health and well-being.

Victoria said: “Ralph was an absolute God-send. A great distraction and a constant sense of fun. His tail was always wagging, however we felt. It was great therapy to sit on the floor with him and give him a stoke and a cuddle.”

Victoria, Carl, and Esme really missed seeing their wider family, who they would visit regularly before the pandemic.

And their relatives missed the contact with the dogs, so Victoria sent them videos so they could see the animal.

She said: “It’s hard to say goodbye when the dogs move on but as volunteers we get a real sense of achievement. We are full of pride to be involved in the process and everybody is excited when we get a new dog.”

The trainee guide dogs have even helped with home-schooling. Esme has been reading to the dogs and more recently, when asked to complete a comic strip project for school, she made one about Guide Dogs and training dog Casper.

Esme said: “Casper makes me smile when I am feeling down. I love watching him explore on walks and see him falling asleep when I read to him.”

Victoria and Carl both work as high school teachers, but they admitted they were daunted by home-schooling their nine-year-old.

But Casper was again on hand to help.

Victoria said: “We are used to teaching our own subjects and there was a real blurring of the boundaries between being a parent and a teacher. It was a positive distraction to have a dog around and just being able to take him for exercise was a welcome relief.”

The fostering of trainee guide dogs is beneficial to the charity, as the dogs are tested socially in a family situation, getting them used to all the things they will encounter in their life as a qualified guide dog.

But it is also a chance for the family to enjoy caring for a dog while working full-time.

Victoria said: “We get the best bits of having a dog, it gets us out of the house for walks and knowing we are part of something so special makes us feel so worthwhile. I wish we had done it sooner.”

To find out more about the life-changing work that Guide Dogs does, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk

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