Belfast Telegraph

It's a desk job for Labrador Bart as he becomes our first guide dog to go to school

By Michelle Smyth

Meet Bart - one of the new intake at Portadown College.

Although he just arrived at the school this term, Bart is already a massive hit with both pupils and staff.

However, Bart is not a student, but a guide dog – and the first to attend a school in Northern Ireland. The two-year-old black retriever cross is there to assist deputy head boy James Cunningham, who is registered blind.

The 17-year-old upper sixth pupil and Bart have only known each other a few weeks but they've already built rock-solid trust and are firm friends.

James, who is severely partially sighted, suffers from tunnel vision and describes his sight as "a blur seen through the window of a fast-moving train".

However, having Bart around has made him feel reassured and confident.

"He's brilliant. I know my way around the school but I kept bumping into things. Bart has helped with that."

James describes Bart as "nothing short of miraculous" for leading him through school corridors like a "veteran" despite being newly-trained.

Although there is a natural reaction to want to stroke such an adorable pup, pupils at Portadown College must refrain from petting or making eye contact with Bart when he is on duty so as not to distract him from the task at hand.

And to reiterate the strict rules, they are displayed on a television screen outside the school's administration office. However, when the yellow harness is off, Bart is free to act like any other family pet – much to James's delight.

"I have always wanted a dog but my parents weren't keen. Bart is exactly the type of dog I have always wanted.

"It's amazing how he reacts when I take his harness off. He understands the difference," he said.

James gives Bart plenty of exercise during the two-mile walk to school every weekday morning. The duo then go home in a taxi along with classroom assistant Pam, whom James describes as a "great help".

The A-Level student hopes to study music at Queen's next year and has already played for the South Ulster Orchestra. Modern technology enables him to enlarge music scores on his computer to play them.

School principal Simon Harper described James as "a true gem and very genuine young man", adding that Bart was a "great addition" to the school. "James is an example to us all with the way he copes in his own positive way. His independence has rocketed since he has been paired with Bart and it is great to see.

"We're all rooting for James that this works out for him. To be able to continue this new-found independence into his university life would be fantastic.

"Everyone can see the tangible value Bart adds to James's life. We are delighted to have the record of the first guide dog in a Northern Ireland school and hope to do some fundraising for guide dogs in the future," he added.

Factfile

  • Bart, the black retriever cross, was bred by Guide Dogs for the Blind and for two years he was carefully trained for the role.
  • Six to eight weeks after birth guide dogs are handed over to trained puppy walkers. The puppies are taken on public transport and to coffee shops.
  • They then enter an intensive training programme during which they are taught things like finding kerbs and traffic light buttons.

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