I have been passionate about animals for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to constantly beg my parents to get us a family dog, and eventually persuaded them to meet me halfway and buy me a rabbit, which was affectionately named Loppy. While of course Loppy wasn’t a dog, he very nearly became one – he was house-trained, trained to do tricks…I even taught him to play football.

Dr Helen

Dr Helen

It was those hours spent training Loppy which sparked my interest in animal sciences. After studying Biology at university, I embarked on a PhD in animal behaviour, studying urban foxes.

As I was coming to the end of my PhD, I decided I wanted to stay within the field of behavioural research but wanted to do something that also had a wider societal impact, which led me to Guide Dogs.

I have been at Guide Dogs for seven years now. I initially was brought on to study puppy behaviour and socialisation, and have worked my way up where I am now, heading up our research department.

One of my favourite aspects of my job is that no two days are ever the same – I am constantly out meeting new people, new dogs, and through research, am always trying to find ways to improve our dogs’ health, wellbeing and our overall knowledge of all things canine.

I might spend a morning talking to the parents of a child with sight loss about how our Buddy Dog service, which matches kids with well-behaved, friendly pet dogs, can help boost their child’s confidence and break down psychological barriers to independence. In the afternoon I could be talking to our Head of Breeding about the progress of our ongoing research projects. My current focus is a study called Born To Guide, our vision is to build a genomic database that will transform our understanding of dog behaviour and health, helping ensure that all our dogs grow up to be happy, healthy and with the best possible chance of becoming a life-changing guide dog for someone with sight loss. Ultimately, it will help strengthen our breeding programme and improve the overall wellbeing of generations of guide dogs to come.

As world leaders in our field, we do a lot of work with other guide dog schools around the world – next week I am speaking to training bodies from 12 different countries about evidence-based best practice.

Dogs try and talk to us, but as humans we often don’t understand – my job as a researcher is partly to try and decipher what it is they want to communicate. To do this, you really need to step back and read a dogs’ behaviour as it presents itself, as opposed to projecting what we think they feel on to them. For example, a wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog – the angle of the tail can convey a multitude of different moods, all the way from elation to anxiety.

The proudest moments of my career are ones where when I see our work come to life. Recently I saw a guide dog and its owner crossing a road. They approached the crossing, stopped, and the owner used positive reinforcement training. Then they crossed safely. The dog was happy, the guide dog user was happy. Witnessing a perfect partnership is the pinnacle of what Guide Dogs is all about.

To find out more about Guide Dogs’ research, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk.

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