For the Irish Guide Dogs, it has been a year like no other.
In March, the dogs, usually housed on Model Farm Road in the west of Cork city, were put into temporary homes, and training resumed in May once the initial lockdown was over.
Staff have moved to working remotely, and the training of the dogs is now blended.
The dogs and puppies have also had to get used to seeing trainers in masks and PPE.
Erin McDonald, Irish Guide Dogs shared services supervisor, looks after puppy raising. She says things had to change because of Covid-19.
“We had to use technology more, we started doing things like Zoom puppy classes and videos,” she explains.
Erin thinks from now on, there will be a mix of face-to-face and virtual training.
Home visits to inspect the house and garden of first-time volunteers are also being conducted virtually.
However, there is still some face-to-face interaction. Puppies and trained dogs have to be given to families all across Ireland.
Irish Guide Dog staff have PPE and letters permitting travel to facilitate this, and training is done on a one-to-one basis in the home or garden.
Two assistance dog classes were run in the centre in Cork, with social distancing in place.
Guide dog training in the centre was also going to resume in November, but due to level five this has been postponed.
The dogs themselves also had to get used to people wearing masks.
“Some of the dogs were cowering as they didn’t know what was going on with the [masks],” says Erin
Before the pandemic, Erin says they struggled to get puppy raisers. Now there is a wait list of 76 people.
Erin believes work-life dynamics have changed, and with working from home now a lot more common, people are more inclined to volunteer.
However, puppy raising isn’t suitable for everyone as it’s a big commitment.
“Even if people are working from home, they may not be approved, because it is difficult to raise a pup depending on the flexibility of your work from home schedule.”
Erin says new puppies were placed in September for the first time since the pandemic started, as puppy breeding was paused during the first wave.
Irish Guide Dogs are still accepting applications from people in Munster who are interested in puppy raising, and they will be added to a wait list, but applications have closed for Leinster.
There’s also the option of temporary boarding which is for older dogs who are in training. This type of placement is open to people who live close to the centre on the Model Farm Road.
The dog stays with volunteers in their home during the evenings or on weekends, and then returns to ‘school’ at the centre on weekdays from nine to five.
Tim O’Mahony, general manager of Irish Guide Dogs, says the trainers, volunteers and dogs have been able to adapt and have shown great flexibility, for which he is grateful.
However, the pandemic has seriously hampered the charity’s fundraising efforts. Their operation costs €5m a year to run and 85% of that is generated from the public’s donations.
“With all the public interactions being put on hold, our only avenue has been digital, with social media and our website,” he says.
Traditionally, guide dogs and volunteers would have fundraised at the Cork Summer Show, the Bloom flower show in Dublin, the Ploughing Championships, the RDS Show, and through the Mizen to Malin charity cycle and the Camino walk in Spain.
Mr O’Mahony says fortunately, the bequests and legacies have held up.
“We have done better than expected. We have weathered the storm to a degree, but we can’t in the long-term fund ourselves without public interaction.”
While there are government subsidies, it is still an uncertain time, says Mr O’Mahony.
However, there is good news, as the same number of people were trained this year as last year, with regards to assistance and guide dogs.
“When you consider the impacts, that’s significant.”