Long-term vision of a guiding light
OUR SEEING-EYE DOGS NEED VOLUNTEERS WITH HEART, WRITES MERCEDES MAGUIRE
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.