Celebrating 35 years as an instructor | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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25 November, 2016

Celebrating 35 years as an instructor

Doug poses on one knee with one of the Guide Dogs in training. Picture: Alan Sadleir

Passion for teaching leads to fulfilling career 

Throughout his 35 years of working in the Guide Dog field, Guide Dog Program Supervisor, Doug Ritchie has taught numerous staff, dogs and clients in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and in four states within Australia.

As he marks the milestones and reflects on a long career, Doug said one of the main reasons for his longevity in the job is the fascinating combination trying to meld the skills and temperament of the dog to the ever changing needs of the client base. 

“I feel that I am still very much learning in this job. Irrespective of how well you feel you have done in the training of a unit, a small part of me asks how could I have value added even more to the unit?” he said. “It's this desire to constantly improve and learn new skills which keep me motivated and interested.” 

Doug’s first job after leaving school was as a teacher aide in Southern Africa with children who were disabled, a job which, even at this early stage, confirmed that  teaching was a job he would follow for his entire working life. 

On returning to Scotland, Doug was fortunate to be shown a job advertisement in a local newspaper calling for Apprentice Guide Dog Mobility Instructors. The rest is now history as he has now spent 35 years working with “inspirational and inspiring clients and staff”.

So after training countless dogs, does Doug have a favourite? “My very first dog, Heidi, was special to me as it was proof that with time, energy and understanding you can make such a huge difference to someone's quality of living,” Doug said. “She went onto work for 10 years.” 
“A few others do stick in my mind for a number of reasons but the incredibly strong bond that grows between the instructor and dog ensures that every dog that is trained remains emotionally close to you.” 

“This however can be the achilles heel of the profession in that dogs do grow old and do get sick which I don't think I'll ever get used to.”

Three dogs in the back of a Guide Dogs van ready for some one-on-one training with Doug. Picture: Alan Sadleir

Changes in dog training techniques and philosophies

Dog training techniques have changed dramatically especially within the last 10 years with the introduction of positive reinforcement techniques and philosophies (used with both the dog and dog and client). These ensure deeper and quicker learning outcomes for both. 

On the other side of the team, client training techniques have always been evolving and no two programs are ever the same. 

Doug said the role required a trusting relationship between himself and his clients. “It's important to have professional empathy. You need to be observant and sensitive to each person’s circumstances. You need know when to assist and when to pull back and allow events to unfold.”

These days Doug's role has become more supervisory but still involves “hands on” work with dogs in training and clients.

Along with providing support and guidance for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Doug is also an International Guide Dog Federation Assessor, one of 25 around the world, whose job is to travel to new and existing Guide Dog schools ensuring they meet World Best Practices. 

Hoping to continue in the role for many years to come, Doug suggested the key to his longevity in the profession was having a broad outlook, tact and above all a sense of humour. “Without that it can sometimes be a very difficult role. An ability to see the lighter side is definitely a bonus.”