Long-term vi­sion of a guid­ing light

OUR SEE­ING-EYE DOGS NEED VOL­UN­TEERS WITH HEART, WRITES MERCEDES MAGUIRE

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - The Everest -

FOR 60 years they’ve been teach­ing young dogs new tricks but labradors haven’t al­ways been prime puppy in the ser­vice an­i­mal stakes.

In decades past, Guide Dogs NSW/ ACT has also used breeds such as box­ers, ger­man shep­herds, golden re­triev­ers and bor­der col­lies. But in re­cent times, labradors’ in­tel­li­gence, will­ing­ness to please and ease of train­ing has made them chief ca­nine for see­ing eye dog du­ties.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion was founded in 1957 by a NSW Apex mem­ber who’d seen a sim­i­lar out­fit in Perth.

These days Guide Dogs NSW/ACT pro­vides around 250 dogs to the vi­sion­im­paired across the state and cap­i­tal ter­ri­tory ev­ery year, but the as­sis­tance the or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fers to those who need its help goes well be­yond that.

“Sixty years later our ser­vices have evolved. We pro­vide tech­nol­ogy-as­sisted de­vices such as apps, hand­held elec­tronic de­vices to help de­tect items in front of you as well as white canes,” ex­ec­u­tive gen­eral man­ager of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Leila Davis said. In 1984 Guide Dogs launched the Pets As Ther­apy pro­gram, which pro­vides trained dogs to dis­ad­van­taged mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, such as chil­dren with autism, who can ben­e­fit from the com­pan­ion­ship of a pet. And in 2009 the Cen­tre for Eye Health ini­tia­tive was in­tro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Uni­ver­sity of NSW. Still, the heart and soul of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has al­ways been the dogs. “These guide dogs make a huge dif­fer­ence in the lives of a per­son with vi­sion im­pair­ment. They’re es­sen­tially their eyes, and hav­ing one al­lows them to do the things other peo­ple take for granted and main­tain their in­de­pen­dence and even their em­ploy­ment,” Ms Davies said. All po­ten­tial NSW Guide Dog pups are pur­pose bred and born at the Guide Dog Breed­ing Cen­tre built at Glos­so­dia in Syd­ney’s north­west ru­ral fringe in 2000.

Be­fore the cen­tre was built, all NSW guide dogs were bred at the Na­tional Dog Train­ing Cen­tre in Kew, Vic­to­ria, opened by then-Prime Min­is­ter Sir Robert Men­zies in 1962.

It costs $35,000 and takes two years to train a pup to be a work­ing dog, which are given to the vi­sion­im­paired for free.

From eight weeks of age, the adorable pups are homed with vol­un­teer rais­ers who will pro­vide early so­cial­i­sa­tion and guide them through puppy preschool classes that teach them sim­ple com­mands like sit,

stay and drop. Af­ter the year, they re­turn to the Breed­ing Cen­tre for a 20-week in­ten­sive train­ing pro­gram, where they learn to work in noisy and busy lo­ca­tions, nav­i­gate ob­sta­cles, travel on pub­lic trans­port and so on. “With­out the puppy-rais­ers we wouldn’t be able to pro­vide guide dogs, it’s as sim­ple as that,” Ms Davis said. “It must be hard to hand over a puppy that’s been part of your fam­ily, but the feed­back we get from fam­i­lies is that it’s a won­der­ful way to teach chil­dren about giv­ing back.” Those big black eyes are enough to make any­one melt — but that’s not some­thing the To­ma­se­vic fam­ily can af­ford to do. The Hunters Hill clan signed up to raise 13-week-old guide dog puppy Jean. And, it’s a role the fam­ily of six take very se­ri­ously.

“In the be­gin­ning I said I’m not go­ing to al­low my­self to get too close to her but she com­pletely melts my heart and it makes me teary to think about let­ting Jean go af­ter the year,” Magdalena To­ma­se­vic, mum to Jo­van, 17, Jana, 16, Eva, 13, Sofia, 10, Luka, seven and Mak­sim, four, said.

“I al­ways re­mind the kids Jean is a work­ing dog and she has a pur­pose. We take our role very se­ri­ously and we’re proud to be part of the process.”

Sir Robert Men­zies opens the orig­i­nal dog train­ing cen­tre.

Sofia To­ma­se­vic, 10, with guide dog puppy Jean. Golden re­triev­ers, bor­der col­lies and box­ers have been guide dogs in pre­vi­ous decades.

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