By Jaclyn Keast
Martin Place, with its elegant sandstone banks and offices, echoed to the unlikely sounds of dogs barking and trainers issuing commands as the place was turned into a guide dog training school by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT on April 22. It was the launch of the organisation’s new education campaign, Guiding the Way.
The event, launched by Andrew Constance, NSW Minister for Disability Services, coincided with International Guide Dog Awareness Week.
An obstacle course was set up in which puppies and trainers demonstrated the different stages of training that a puppy must undertake before beginning life as a working dog. A makeshift pen allowed people to play with the puppies that will soon begin training.
Guide Dogs hopes the new campaign will increase public awareness of the guide dog’s role. Those who attended the event were given education kits and pocket cards about guide dogs.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the way dogs are trained and what they do,” says Ishtar Schnedier, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs. She explains that members of the public often mistakenly think it is fine to pat or offer food to a guide dog when it is in its harness.
“It takes a lot of concentration between guide dog handlers and their dogs to work together effectively and things like this can be very distracting, especially for a newly trained dog,” Ms Schneider says.
Guide dog trainer Mel Daley agrees. “The dogs are a mobility aid. It can be a safety hazard for a handler if the guide dog gets distracted.”
According to Ms Schneider, many handlers say members of the public allow their pet dogs to come up and interact with their guide dog when it is working.
Graham White, chief executive officer of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, says the second most frequent need to retire guide dogs is due attack from other dogs not on a lead.
Jeanette de Montemas, 79, has been blind since birth and was the first person to obtain a guide dog in metropolitan Sydney. She says over the years she has gotten into many situations where she felt discriminated against or victim to public ignorance. In particular, she found herself sometimes being refused service by restaurants and taxi drivers.
In NSW, guide dogs are legally allowed to enter all public places, including restaurants. They are also allowed on all forms of public transport, including buses, trains, planes and taxis.
“Often taxi drivers would say to me ‘Who’s going to clean up the cab after your dog?’. I’d just respond ‘Why don’t you take that up with the transport department?’. You learn to take it all in your stride,” Mrs de Montemas says.
“We still have businesses, transport services and the like who continue to discriminate against people with disability, particularly someone with a guide dog,” says Andrew Constance. “Awareness Week is ensuring the wider community has greater understanding of the importance that guide dogs play to people with disability.”
Australia faces an ageing population and with that, the number of people suffering from vision-impairment is expected to rise. According to a report prepared for Vision 2020 Australia (an initiative of the World Health Organisation), it is estimated that by the year 2020 the number of people suffering from vision impairment in NSW will increase by 25 per cent to 100,000, of whom 20,000 will be legally blind.
Graham White believes as the numbers of vision-impaired people increases, the work of guide dogs will become more essential and public education will become critical.
“The community needs to be able to empathise with the people with canes and dogs.”