From a passion for dogs to an unwavering commitment to others
Interview and photograph kindly provided to IGDF by Fédération Française des Associations de Chiens guides d’aveugles (FFAC) www.chiensguides.fr
Our 50th anniversary was an opportunity for the French Federation to focus on the story of these women and men who have decided to work every day for the cause of guide dogs, by training these outstanding companions to guide the steps of those who need them so much. We met Sandrine Lebreton who has been working for the cause for 13 years. After having dreamt of becoming a veterinarian, she finally found a daily fulfilment in the job of GDMI. Among her achievements, 48 guide dogs graduated, and she has forgotten the names of none nor the routes worked with their owners. Being an instructor is much more than a job for her, it is a passion, a day to day dedication that she would not change for anything in the world!
How did you discover the profession of guide dog mobility instructor?
I’ve had a passion for dogs since I was a little girl. My dream was to become a veterinarian. After a school discovery stay at a veterinarian’s, I came back there for every holidays until I was 16. That’s where I saw a guide dog for the first time. I thought that what the dog could do for its owner was just amazing. So, when I failed the entrance exam to the veterinary school, I turned to training guide dogs, without any regrets. I didn’t know the activity, but I had been to kennel clubs with my own dogs where I practised training and agility. I applied to all guide dog schools in France and it was Ecole de Chiens Guides d’Aveugles de Provence Côte d’Azur Corse who responded favorably; I’ve been working there with passion for 13 years now.
Have you ever regretted having followed this new path?
Absolutely not, because I’ve found a real balance. Being an instructor allows me to combine my passion for dogs with my desire to help others. It is so rewarding to practice a profession that is not routine, that requires constant adaptation because each dog is different, and each breed has its own character and individual traits. I wake up every morning knowing that every day will be different and that I’m going to be with my dogs. Even rainy weather cannot dampen my motivation, being with them always makes me feel good.
What qualification struck you most?
I think it will remain the first team I trained, because it confirmed that I had made the right choice. The user was an 18-year-old girl, blind from birth. After school in an ordinary environment, she got her guide dog just as she left home to start physiotherapist studies. I remember how well she did with the cane. I think she’s so improved her guide dog that it is even better than when I gave it to her (laughs). Over the years, I have enjoyed following their evolution and telling myself that on my modest level I had contributed to it, it is a real satisfaction.
What is your connection to the visually impaired people you follow up?
You become like a member of the family. Sometimes I feel like a godmother they can count on if they have any questions. It’s a very special bond that is created each time, it goes much further than the dog, these are real life stories. I feel full of gratitude to be able to be part of this chain of solidarity that can transform people’s lives.
Do you have examples of transformation of lives that you are proud of?
Sometimes, it may not seem much from the outside, but I once allowed a man to be able to pick up his daughter from school every day – what a huge step it was for him and how proud he was! I’m glad I was able to contribute to that. Some other times, the transformation is even more spectacular. I remember a very introvert lady who couldn’t stand being touched. She had been abused as a child and found it difficult to reach out to others. When she came back eight years later, she was a different person. She had come out of her shell, and that was thanks to a dog, which is extraordinary.
How do you manage separation with the dogs you train?
For the first guide dog I trained, it was very hard for me as the young instructor that I was at the time. I took a slap in the face as they say, I realized that I had to work on myself, I couldn’t keep it, that was not the purpose of my work. You have to find the right place in the relationship. Today, when people ask me how I can let them go, I always answer that these dogs are meant to do something much bigger than my own happiness.
What satisfaction do you get from your job?
On the last day of the training session, when I see the dogs leave without hesitation with their new owner, I have the feeling that they understand that this was the purpose of everything they were taught. Dogs live in the moment. They remember us, but we are not their life. When you see the dog, in relaxation time, come back to check that their owner is okay, you tell yourself that you have succeeded.
A golden family for Ouni
As an English teacher and mother of two, Bénédicte Kerg saw her family life turned upside down in 2019. Cergy-Pontoise University, launched an invitation to get involved with the cause of guide dogs by becoming a puppy-raising family. The adventure, which was supposed to last only a few months, took a completely unexpected turn for Bénédicte and her family.
“It was a family project, we consulted each other several times. It was supposed to last a year, the typical time taken for the early training of a puppy! »
She therefore requested from the headteacher, permission to get involved in this project. Another colleague has also taken the step alongside Bénédicte, so the school now has two guide dogs in training, which are around every day, during and in classes. “The impact on young people is particularly interesting! Puppies are attractive because they are cute, but older dogs also prompt questions about their work. »
Bénédicte was very involved in the training of her new four-legged pupil: “I took part in the group lessons organised at Ecole de Chiens Guides de Paris, practised the recommended exercises.”
Ouni was well on her way to becoming a guide dog… Then the family was contacted by the breeding department of the school, who offered them the opportunity to contribute in a different way to the guide dogs cause: become the breeding family of Ouni, which Ecole de Chiens Guides de Paris wished to keep as a brood bitch for future guide dogs. “It was an opportunity for us to keep Ouni with us, she had become an adult dog, calm and obedient. So much so that she is nicknamed “Miss Ounique”! »
Ouni first underwent extensive aptitude tests, in particular screening for dysplasia. Since being selected, she now shares her life between her family and the Guide Dog School of Paris, where she stays for 3 months for the litters to be born and weaned. Bénédicte takes good care of her health and well-being, with outings and fun activities in the company of other dogs. When Ouni is about to give birth to a new litter, she goes into the school 15 days before whelping, so that she and the pups can receive professional care. Bénédicte is the first to see photos of the newborn puppies and is allowed to visit the little family in sterile clothes a week later. When the pups are weaned, Ouni returns to her puppy-raising family.
“I was lucky enough to follow the handovers (qualification ceremony) of Ouni’s puppies, including that of a dog whose owner returned to Ireland and keeps a blog. These are particularly touching moments. »
But the family doesn’t stop there: during Ouni’s periods at School, they welcome dogs as a relay family for stays of up to a month and a half long.
I've got my life back to where I was before...
Visually impaired from birth, Charlene permanently lost sight after the birth of her second child. Obelix’s arrival has allowed her to reconcile her professional life and her life as a mother, and to take more confident steps with her children.
When Charlene lost what little field of vision she had left, she quickly wondered how to readjust her life. “The occupational doctor sent me to an association in Lille to receive orientation and mobility training to facilitate my journeys. That’s where I was referred to guide dogs.” Having always had a pet dog at home, she immediately fancied this solution as she no longer felt safe with her cane. Charlene had imagined her ideal guide dog as a quite independent small German Shepherd, but it was a completely different profile that was offered to her – a 33 kg Labrador, sticking like glue, according to her. “I must admit that the choice of Association des Chiens guides des Centres Paul Corteville was excellent. After a few weeks at home, Obelix had totally adapted. »
Her children were happy to welcome this new playmate, very cuddly and protective. They quickly understood that life was going to be easier for them too. “When I’m on a journey, I don’t have to concentrate as I used to with a cane and I can chat with them!” Accustomed to not going too far so that their mother could hear them, they now benefit from more freedom to their greatest happiness. Charlene can now pick them up from school on her own and take them to their sports activities. “They’re so proud to have a mom who has the right to bring a dog, because he’s exceptional.”
But the changes made possible by Obelix do not end there. When the lockdown was over, the company where Charlene works offered her a position adapted to her blindness. Obelix quickly became the new mascot to her colleagues. “They had seen my distress when I lost my sight: I couldn’t manage anymore, they came to pick me up in the morning… Now I come on my own and it normalizes relationships.” She has also rediscovered the pleasure of spontaneity and autonomy. “I can make a phone call while walking, I can go to the baker’s without having to anticipate, now journeys rhyme with pleasure and not stress! I am back to my old life. A guide dog certainly involves some constraints, but according to her, this is nothing compared to the safety that Obelix brings every day. “I wouldn’t imagine myself without him!”