The hustle and bustle of a shopping centre is proving the perfect training ground for a new generation of guide dogs.
According to Guide Dogs Cymru, the Eagles Meadow shopping centre in Wrexham is the ideal location for putting new guide dogs through their paces.
Among those who uses Eagles Meadow is Heather Woroska, 21, of Penycae, who is registered blind and gets around with the help of her four-year-old guide dog Una.
She suffers from two conditions, Oculocutaneous Albinism and Nystagmus, that have left her with no central vision and extremely limited and very blurred peripheral vision.
Heather, who attended mainstream school in Ruabon, has twice done a zip wire challenge to raise much-needed funds for Guide Dogs Cymru, and says having Una means she can go where she wants when she wants.
She said: “Una, who is a Labradoodle, has totally boosted my confidence. I’m never in anymore. I go to Liverpool to visit my friend who is university there or anywhere else I want to.
“I only really ever went out if I was with my mum. I have a cane and would use that but when I first got Una I didn’t really have the confidence to do much.
“I trained with her and a trainer for 10 days to build up confidence but once I was alone I was just too afraid to go out. It took me a couple of weeks to actually build up enough courage to take the plunge.
“We get along so well and she is never far from my side. Having a guide dog has given me so much freedom.
“Having somewhere like Eagles Meadow Shopping Centre as a place to train guide dogs is brilliant.
“Una is fantastic though and gives me lots of confidence. We definitely work as a team. She’s so important to me and I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’d be lost that’s for sure.”
Jon Mudd, head of Guide Dogs Cymru, says the charity, which helps hundreds of sight impaired people across the region each year, needs places like Eagles Meadow where dogs in training can experience a challenging environment with lots of people.
He said: “We are really grateful to the management of Eagles Meadow for their fabulous support. Guide dogs, like any dogs, have very different personalities and are very much individuals.
“We work hard to match a dog to a client ensuring their personalities work together. A dog’s personality and speed needs to be closely matched to that of the person it will be working with.
“Eagles Meadow provides our dogs with lots of busy shops, there are escalators and obstructions such as raised flower beds to be negotiated. It’s really the perfect training ground.
“And what it also has is people, lots of people. One of the biggest issues for guide dogs is people wanting to stroke them or distract them when they are working.
“It can be a difficult problem for a sight impaired person when someone, who wishes well, walks up and begins stroking or petting a working guide dog.
“People generally won’t approach a blind or visually impaired person who is using a cane. But they will approach the same person if they are working with a guide dog.”
Jon Mudd, who is based in Cardiff, revealed Guide Dogs Cymru was building a North Wales team to help train guide dogs.
He said: “We are looking at 35 instructors to work with and train new guide dogs. Dogs do learn what their job is. A lot is to do with repetition. It’s about the dog working with its handler and becoming a close team.
“We breed around 1,500 dogs a year nationally and then match the dog to a client. It’s so important to ensure the right match is made. It’s really like a marriage to be perfectly honest.”
Eagles Meadow Shopping Centre operations manager, Stuart Bellis, was pleased to welcome Guide Dogs Cymru to the centre.
He said: “Guide dogs are so important in giving visually impaired people confidence and the freedom to go where they want, when they want.
“Guide dogs need to get used to working in busy retail environments and we hope by training here at Eagles Meadow they will learn some of the skills they need to become first class guide dogs.”