'Unlike anything else' - Guide dog raiser Penny on life of volunteering

Penny Parker with guide dog Kerry.

Penny Parker has looked after 14 guide dogs over the years - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Penny Parker is a familiar face in the streets of Felixstowe, often walking about with a leash in hand as she helps to train a new guide dog puppy.  

“Most people in town know me as the guide dog lady,” said Ms Parker.  

For the past 14 years she has been at the East and Mid Suffolk fundraising branch for Guide Dogs.

Part of her work with the Guide Dogs for the association involves “puppy raising” - helping to bring up a guide dog puppy before it is given over to a blind or partially sighted person.  

It’s not the only volunteering work she has done in Felixstowe, having been a Brownie leader for 20 years, on various school PTAs and putting on craft clubs for children.

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She also helps out at the local food bank collecting donations to help feed pets.  

And all of this Ms Parker has done while being a carer for her daughter, who has special needs.

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Her work with the dogs began out of her children’s desire for pets.  

“We tried goldfish, a guinea pig, a hamster, a cat but they are not very interactive pets,” she said.  

“I knew that I couldn’t afford a dog so I saw an advert for puppy walking for guide dogs.” 

With the association paying for many of the associated costs with the dog, Ms Parker decided to get involved. 

“We were chosen really quickly to get a puppy and haven’t looked back,” she said.  

A few years later she joined her local fundraising branch, which she leads up.  

“I’m on a break at the moment because we had to stop puppy breeding because of Covid,” she said.  

Covid has had a significant toll on the work of the association. 

“A lot of our dogs that were working have had a break down because they can’t deal with the social distancing or having to queue,” she said.  

“They haven’t been out as much because people with an eye condition often have a medical condition for that. 

“So those dogs have had to retire much earlier than we had hoped.” 

The association also couldn’t move on dogs during lockdown so stopped breeding.

The charity is also doing a lot to help younger people with technology as well.  

“We are getting a lot more technology out to children with visual impairments so they can join in the world with their tablets,” she said.  

“And we are also sending out buddy dogs. 

“We expanded our services just at the moment where everything had to shut down.” 

Fortunately, the branch is now back out fundraising again, making around £1,700 in its first event earlier this month.  

“There’s hope that we will bring it back to where we were a few years ago,” she said.  

Having looked after so many dogs, what is it that keeps Ms Parker going.  

“It’s not like anything else,” she said.  

“You get the unconditional love of that dog. You teach it everything that it pretty much needs to be a guide dog. 

“The actual job they do is priceless. To see the things that people can do with a dog they go off on their own and go all over the place.  

“They are so independent. 

“To be part of that transformation of someone’s life is priceless to me.” 

Penny Parker with guide dog Kerry.

Penny Parker with one of her former guide dogs Kerry - Credit: Archant

Ms Parker said has spoken to people who have received the dogs she has trained and knows what an impact they can have.

“To hear the emotion in the owner’s voice that they loved that dog as much as I had and to hear the difference it was making was just an amazing feeling," she said.

Knowing that they are going to a good home is reassuring because saying goodbye to her pups is so tough. 

"I try to convince myself not to fall in love with a puppy and that lasts about an hour and a half and I am completely smitten," she said. 

For now Ms Parker awaits her next guide dog puppy but hopes that she can continue to help them in the future. 

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