Guide Dogs in Glenferrie

They say dogs are man’s best friend, and this could not be more true for the members of our community with impaired vision. Through their handled harness, guide dogs become an extension of their person, giving them a new pair of eyes and a new “lease on life”. The Glenferrie Times interviewed Team Leader Justin Marshall, who has been with Guide Dogs Victoria in Kew for 32 years. He admits he is "absolutely biased for what we do here … seeing what these dogs do for these people, it’s just fantastic”.

Image: Guide dog puppy in Guide Dogs Victoria, Kew

The road to becoming a guide dog...

is no easy feat for these pups, who are born and bred on-site in Kew, which has been the Guide Dogs Victoria headquarters for almost 60 years. At around eight weeks old, they are placed with volunteer Puppy Raiser families in the community for twelve months - including many in the Boroondara area. During this time the dogs learn how to be, in essence, a dog. This includes obedience training, regular walks, socialisation, and introduction to people, smells, other dogs, and all the world has to offer. They sport their ‘Guide Dog Puppy’ vest when they are out and about, so be sure to keep a look out for them.

After the twelve months, the dogs are brought back to the training centre. They face an intensive five-walk assessment over five days to evaluate if they have what it takes to become guide dogs. The dogs are assessed primarily on their body language, including their reaction to obstacles, sounds, and variable environments. In particular, the trainers are looking at the time it takes for the dog to recover from a distraction and move on. Successful dogs will have traits such as high initiative, willingness, good concentration, good level of body sensitivity and spatial awareness, and low distraction. These will then go on to the five month training program before being paired with a client.

The first assessment walk is on-campus, the second in East Kew, the third around Kew Junction, the fourth in Fairfield, and the final right here in Glenferrie.

Image: Trainer Justin on assessment walk

Glenferrie Road: The 'make or break' walk

Justin: “Now the beauty of Glenferrie is that we have heavy pedestrian traffic, the university close-by, the narrow footpaths, lots of people out walking and having coffee... so we get to know where the best coffee places are! There's also a resident dog there [outside Readings], Matilda, who is always there to say hello.

There's lots going on: the trains are going over and the trams are coming in underneath the bridge. As trains go by, we're looking to see if the dog’s looking around and reacting (or not). The ground vibrates. If you stand there you can feel it, so the dogs might react to that. We like to make banging noises along the way to see if the dogs react to sudden sounds. There's a nice, big plastic door going into Glenferrie Centre there, coming down from the train station. We usually warn people that we're going to bang it because as we shove it, it REALLY echoes. Hopefully the dog's not too bothered, but some dogs WILL react to these things, so we're observing how the dog is coping with its environment. We’re also looking after the welfare of the animal, so we’re looking for signs of high anxiety. Not every dog actually wants to be a guide dog

Glenferrie Road in Hawthorn is our 'make or break' walk. At the end of this walk, we write up our assessment report to decide which dogs we're going to put into our guide dog training program. It's a great area. It's funny, you really get to know the area by walking around there. We get regulars coming out and talking to us. You really get to know the people.”

What happens if a puppy does not pass the test?

"They can't all go to university," says Justin. Some of the dogs are just naturally too friendly, too inquisitive, too distracted. Those who fail the assessment will be reallocated into Guide Dogs Victoria's other aid programs. This includes the Pets As Therapy program, where they will be homed with a blind or vision-impaired child or adult to introduce them to the experience of having a trained, permanent guide dog. Otherwise, the dogs may become Companion Pets for people with a broad range of physical and mental disabilities. Sometimes, dogs who are completely incompatible with service may return to their foster families.

Match-making: the client side

While the dogs are in training, prospective clients are being interviewed and evaluated. There are many factors to consider when matching a client to a guide dog, including: personality, physical size and strength, particular gait, common travel routes and environments (eg. metropolitan or regional areas), and their future plans. For example, a dog better suited for busy environments and public transport would be placed with a city dweller. “We know the client, we know the dogs, and we do a match", says Justin. The client is then trained with their new companion, who will remain by their side for 8-10 years of service.

There are a number of guide dogs Justin has placed with clients in Hawthorn, whom he often sees out working when they visit for training. “This particular day we were training in Glenferrie, it was really, really busy. We struck dogs, school kids, uni students, obstacles on the footpath, you name it. It was a nightmare. And it was just so wonderful to see [one of his clients] walk through this crowd at busy lunchtime. He didn’t hit or even make contact with anyone, the dog was manoeuvring and they just nailed it. It’s so rewarding to see a guide dog team at work.”

Around the end of the year, the 60-or-so puppies have their graduation ceremony at the Hawthorn Arts Centre in front of all the trainers, puppy raisers, clients, and even members of Parliament. “The Town Hall [Arts Centre] there is beautiful … it’s a really great event”.

How can Glenferrie contribute?

While obstacles “can be good because we can use them for walking training, this obviously needs to be within reason”. Justin commended the business owners of Glenferrie for doing a great job at adhering to the laws of footpath furniture. In the “leafy backstreets” areas of their training walks, he asks that residents trim their hedges up and remove overhanging branches so that they don’t encroach on the footpath.

For people with dogs: “on Fridays, bring your dogs out! We love seeing them, and we want to see our dogs' reactions to other dogs.” However, if you’re tethering your dog at a pole, using a short leash is a great way to keep the walkway clear for trainers and blind people with guide dogs.

A guide dog in harness is a guide dog on duty, but it IS still a dog who, by nature, can be distracted. Blind people have run into poles because people have fed, touched, or otherwise distracted their service dog. If a guide dog is out of harness, feel free to - but ALWAYS - ask before petting the dog.

Lastly, Guide Dogs Victoria provide all of their training, services, education, ongoing support - and the guide dogs themselves - at no cost to the client. “It is the public dollar that provides guide dogs to the visually-impaired”, says Justin. Guide Dogs Victoria is always looking for donations, bequests, and volunteers, all of which you can learn more about on their website. Volunteering includes Puppy Nurturers on campus, who socialise and play with the puppies; Puppy Raisers, who foster the puppies during their first year; and Puppy Walkers. There is a waiting list, however - “it’s the job everyone wants!”.

For more information visit www.guidedogsvictoria.com.au

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