The old adage ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ may have common currency in language. But the term takes on a very real meaning in the case of charismatic Castlerea resident Pierce Bolger.
Pierce who resides on Patrick Street in the town is a popular and easily recognised local figure on the streets of the town. He’s been living locally for the past five years and enjoys local life no end having integrated himself into the heart of the community.
To that effect, Pierce, who is visually impaired, is helped no end by the support of Irish Guide Dogs. Recently, he acquired a new dog, named ‘Quantum’ to help him navigate the busy streets of his adopted home.
Pierce’s new dog, which is a mere twenty months old, replaces former dog Henry who has been retired after seven and a half years of faithful service to Pierce. His new dog is a black retriever cross and both Pierce and the dog have been getting to know each other - with good results.
“All dogs and pups are named in alphabetical order – this is to enable Irish Guide Dogs to monitor the dogs in their work and to ensure they are trained properly. As the dog’s name suggests, he is from the ‘Q’ litter, hence the name Quantum.”
Pierce’s new dog has been getting used to his new surroundings of Castlerea for the past three weeks, supported by representatives of Irish Guide Dogs who have been assisting in the transition process for both Pierce and Quantum.
“The dog begins his training from six weeks of age. At that stage, he goes out to a family and lives with them for twelve months, where he is ‘socialised’. The dog would have been in an ordinary family home, during that time learning to deal with background noises.
“After about twelve months, the dog goes back to the Irish Guide Dog Centre for more intensive training in Cork. The dog starts getting used to crossing the road, stopping at traffic lights and learning how to wait at a kerbside.”
Following, ‘Quantum’ and all the other dogs then are assigned to a Mobility Officer of Irish Guide Dogs from the age of about eighteen months following which the dog is matched with a guide dog user, with attention being given to the strength of both the user and dog.
“Quantum is a big strong dog. There is no difference in training for any dog, but the match-up is important. Quantum is male and is neutered and all bitches are also spayed. Dogs are also matched with their owner with temperament and physique in mind. It really is a ‘team thing’”, says Pierce.
“Normally I would spend three weeks in Cork familiarising myself with the dog. But because of Covid-19, the Mobility Officer came up to me in Castlerea. One is assigned an experienced dog handler where ongoing assessment is done.”
Pierce was understandably excited about receiving his new dog and in that time, both dog and Pierce have been developing a rapport: “We’ve been going for short walks around Castlerea and I’m happy the way things are going.
“The training involves matching my stride with the gait of the dog. It’s about getting the dog used to the countryside, the town and then the sounds and busy areas of the town. David, my Mobility Instructor has also been assisting in terms of getting the dog to do night walks with me”, says Pierce.
Not over-working or putting too much responsibility on the dog at the early stages is important. “The first weekend he was with me, he rested. On the following Monday, the dog was being trained for ‘whistle recall’ and observed to see if it would return without the use of a lead.
“The dog was also trained to find and recall crossings for Pierce, a vital part of the dog guides responsibility, ensuring Pierce’s safety. “The dog got used to stopping at the side of the road, observing and listening to my commands to ‘stop’ where necessary.
“During country walks, he has had close up’s with cattle in the field, which is part of the ‘socialisation process’. His training is to help the dog remain calm and get used to noises and activity. The training goes on daily from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the first two to three weeks I have the dog.”
“I’m happy the way things are going. The other day we went down to the train station. The trains blew their whistles to distract the dog and simulate a ‘real-time’ situation to gauge his reaction. But the dog didn’t get distracted and got up and off the train with no problems.
“It’s important for me too that the dog can get in and out of a taxi. All taxis are obliged to carry a guide dog, unless the driver has a particular exemption if the taxi driver has a particular allergy” says Pierce.
A native of Dublin, who lived in Meath prior to coming to Castlerea, Quantum is Pierce’s fourth guide dog following in the paw prints of his most recent dog, Henry. As is customary, once a guide dog gets to a certain age, the dog is given to a family. As a result, Henry has been getting used to his new family surroundings on the beaches of Rossnowlagh in South Donegal.
“When the guide dog gets to a certain age, his or her skills are not as defined or as sharp as before. Once that begins to happen, as it did with Henry, the dogs are removed from service to enjoy their ‘retirement’.
“Henry had slowed down with me for the last twelve months” says Pierce, who is a diabetic and as a result, has been legally blind for the past eighteen years. I have very partial vision in my left eye. But the big thing with the guide dog is that it gives you absolute and total independence.
A guide dog helps me avoid the day to day obstacles that people take for granted. If for example, there’s a wheelie bin in the middle of the footpath, the guide dog will help me walk around it. It means you avoid making contact with obstacles like that, which you would, with a stick, for example.
“We do get an allowance from the charity for the care of the dog. I can safely say that users’ lives like my own have been transformed by having a guide dog. The dog, once trained, can bring me down to the Station with a simple command or help me cross the road at the safest crossings.
“I have also trained my dogs to bring me to the gates of the Church for Mass. I’m hoping the new dog will get to know where Mulvihill’s is!, says Pierce in reference to one of his favourite watering holes in Castlerea once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted!
But above all, the relationship between Pierce and his dog is professional – which will also be the case with Quantum, just as it was with Henry. “Our relationship is very much professional. The dog gets paid every day with his food.
“If the dog gives up his job, then he is gone; he is no use to me. A dog will remember as many as one hundred and sixty commands. The vast, vast majority of people have welcomed my guide dogs. People were actually upset to hear that Henry was leaving me.
“Having a guide dog has given me independence. If I shout or instruct the word ‘coffee’, the dog will bring me to ‘Season’s (a local Café in Castlerea). If I command ‘Mass’, the dog will bring me to the Church, if I command ‘Park’, the dog will bring me to the Demesne, though that can sometimes be challenging as the dog might want to do what all dogs want to do when they get to a park!
“But I’m the master of my dog; otherwise he doesn’t work for me. I’m the only one that feeds him. In other words, I’m the pack leader. It’s great to have the new dog as lockdown hasn’t been good for me or anyone else – I haven’t been able to go for a coffee in Benny’s or Season’s – I’ve missed that.
“I do listen to the radio quite a bit. I don’t listen to audiobooks that much – I tend to go to sleep after about ten minutes! But it’s important to realise that the guide dogs are available to anyone over sixteen years of age.
“It’s a wonderful service. If anyone has a condition, an accident or it’s the advent of old age, they can contact the Irish Guide Dogs and ask for their client services team, based in Cork, which is ran by Mel Conway, who incidentally, is a native of Castlerea” says Pierce.
Darragh Kelly, Roscommon Herald