It’s a (good) dog’s life

Elizabeth Barnes, CEO of Guide Dogs WA’s parent group VisAbility WA, Greens spokesperson for disability Alison Xamon, and guide dog user Danny Van Vliet at the Learning from Guide Dogs event at Parliament House.

PUPPY raisers are needed to look after baby guide dogs until they’re big enough to be helpful.

Greens upper house MP Alison Xamon said “there’s a huge waiting list of people who are needing guide dogs. There’s a bunch of barriers, and one of the barriers is they don’t have enough puppy fosterers”. 

Ms Xamon is Greens spokesperson for disability, and has a family member who’s been diagnosed with a rare and incurable condition that will lead to blindness. Last week she hosted Guide Dogs WA at Parliament House for an event to raise awareness about the shortage.

Training

Raisers look after the puppies from about eight weeks and are usually with them for 12 to 18 months. Once they’re big enough they then go on to a volunteer boarder for the six to 12 months they attend training five days a week at Guide Dogs WA. 

Guide Dogs WA puppy raising coordinator Leonora Flower handles about 20 dogs and their raisers; linking up people with a pooch based on its temperament and the home environment.

“We want a wide variety of different home environments. If there’s children in the home, the dog learns about children and has exposure to busy life,” she said.

“We need our dogs to go out and have exposures,” Ms Flower says. “Apart from regular obedience training – which the majority of pet owners try to achieve with their dogs – there is an added element of socialisation. 

“Public transport, shopping centres, anywhere someone could go who’s visually impaired or who has autism and that’s not necessarily a dog-friendly place.”

The pups-in-training have the medallion and orange jacket, and part of the raising process is educating people on where the dogs can go.

Ms Xamon says “it is important that people remember that guide dogs are allowed by law to go anywhere that their people go. It is also important that we have a better understanding of the protocols around how to interact with guide dogs, such as if they are wearing a harness, do not touch them, because they are clearly working, and certainly do not try to distract them.”

They cost about $50,000 each to raise. Some of them don’t have the temperament to be guide dogs, but can work as autism assistance dogs or companion animals.

Ideal puppy carers have a lot of free time and a secure home and yard. There’s regular training sessions and all the bedding, food, toys, collars and vet costs are covered by Guide Dogs WA.

You don’t need to have experience with dogs to be a carer: Sometimes a blank slate is the best starting point for Guide Dogs WA to teach people without any preconceived dog-raising notions. 

Get in touch via 9311 8208 or http://www.guidedogswa.com.au

Justine Barsley and puppy-in-training Vicki. Photo by C Smith Photography, Courtesy of Guide Dogs WA.

JUSTINE BARSLEY has been caring for guide dog puppies for six years.

For her, it’s become a hobby and mental health booster, and provides exercise and a sense of purpose. It is a full on task though: Ms Barsley runs a business from home in North Perth so has flexibility and time to give the puppies the care and training they need.

“People ask ‘how much training is there?’ and actually everything is training, from when they wake up and get out of bed and then you take them outside to toilet.”

She says along with all the usual dog training, raising a guide dog puppy means making sure never to drop food so they don’t learn scavenging, keeping them off furniture, teaching them good walking on a lead and to not get distracted by other dogs. They also have to learn to poo or wee in the yard with a vocal command, getting it out before they go on walks.

“They need to toilet before they go for a walk, because that can be difficult for a visually impaired person,” Ms Barsley tells us. “You don’t want the dog pooing in Coles.”

Apart from extra training and exposure to many environments, the dogs are like a pet. Ms Barsley is currently raising Vicki, and “when we’re at home we usually sit on the floor with the dog and have a cuddle at night and she’s treated just like a pet there, there’s lots of cuddles and fun and games”.

When it comes time to hand the dog back, Ms Barsley says “you go into it knowing they’re like your foster child and you do have to give them back, but even after six puppies I still bawl my eyes out”.

But she says “it gives me a purpose… you know that your dog is then going to go on and help someone else”.

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