Puppies are excitable, playful and downright mischievous. But what about when those furry little friends also have a vital role to play?
How do cheeky pups become loyal partners and guides for people with vision impairment?
It all starts with the kindness of volunteers, explains Paul Adrian, Guide Dog Services Manager, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. "Puppies are raised in the homes of volunteer families who provide the broad socialisation and loving environment that helps them grow into confident dogs," he says.
This solid start in life is essential for the puppies to prepare for the complex environments and situations their careers will throw at them.
Not all four-legged friends are instant guide dog potential. "Those dogs with outstanding temperament and health characteristics are placed into our breeding program, ensuring the dogs of the future are healthy, sound and suited to the challenges of Guide Dog work," he says. "Other dogs are selected for our Pets as Therapy (PAT) program, placing them with both children and adults with all sorts of disabilities and challenges." This allows them to fulfil an equally-vital role in supporting people with diverse needs, Paul explains.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT breed their pups using dogs sourced from other Guide Dog schools all over the world. And although many breeds of dog can be guides, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT tend to focus in on Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Labrador/Golden Retriever crossbreeds. "From small to large, from quiet to energetic and outgoing, the retrievers provide the full range of characteristics," Paul says "They are also keen workers and love to be with people."
Puppies only stay in their volunteer homes for the first year of their life. From there they return to the Guide Dog centre for around five months of intensive training before meeting their owner.
"This training program starts with fundamental skills which become more complex as training progresses," says Kerry Peirce, Guide Dog Program Manager, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.
These skills include walking in a straight line, speed control and distraction management, stopping at curbs and surface changes, making left and right turns, working in residential environments, avoiding obstacles, locating destinations, using all forms of transport and working in shopping centres and busy CBD environments.
"All graduating Guide Dogs have achieved a high standard of basic skills to guide," explains Kerry.
Once the Guide Dog is paired with an owner, they enjoy ongoing support by a qualified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor for around three to five weeks. "This training not only covers how to move around together and travel to the places they would like to go, but also how an owner can best care for the dog and recognise any problems that might crop up," Paul says. "Ongoing support is provided on a regular basis to the teams to ensure the long-term success of the partnership."
From puppies to protectors, Guide Dogs step up to the challenge. But as Paul puts it, when the harness is off, they receive the best reward any dog could want: "Guide Dogs get plenty of cuddles, play and downtime!"
This article is brought to you by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.