They’ve come from locked-down Auckland to walk the streets of Hamilton – but Force, Floyd, Henry, Franklin, Easton and Ezra aren’t breaking Covid rules.
The future guide dogs would usually be trained in Auckland, but have a border exemption through Blind Low Vision NZ to carry on in Hamilton while Covid restrictions would otherwise stop their training north of the Bombays.
Three trainers and six guide dogs have been walking Hamilton’s empty streets since September 2, and will continue under alert level 2.
It’s been good getting back on the street but, so far, it hasn’t been reality, Blind Low Vision NZ training operations manager Wendy Mellberg Haecker said.
”We’re very excited about going into level 2 here. It will allow us to … train the dogs not just out here on the street but we will now be able to go into the shops, go into the busy centres where there are lots of people,” Mellberg Haecker told Stuff. “We can go and sit in a café – which is important, that we have that chance to train our dogs to settle in public places.”
Consistency and continuity are key, she said.
“It’s really important we continue to get the dogs out daily and continue to put them through their paces.”
The six guide dogs – Force, Floyd, Henry, Franklin, Easton and Ezra – were selected from a pool of 18 pups because they were only a few weeks away from becoming qualified.
“We’re building their confidence with them now. They know all the skills, but it’s more about building it into who they are,” Mellberg Haecker said.
“Twenty per cent of the dog’s day is spent guiding, the rest is socialising. It opens the world up for people on a social level.”
It costs up to $70,000 each year to raise one qualified dog. Up to 40 dogs are trained every year in New Zealand and there are about 100 on the puppy programme at various stages.
Trainers Lisa Walsh, Alana George and Justin Harden are training two dogs at a time– it’s a lot less than the six they started off with.
Normally, the dogs stay in kennels in Auckland and are trained Monday to Friday. In Hamilton, the dogs stay with volunteers at night, while the trainers stay in a hotel.
And it will continue that way for “as long as it takes” until Auckland moves down in alert levels.
“Depending on what happens in Auckland, if we can continue and complete the training in Hamilton, we will do that. Have them qualified and matched with their handlers.”
Mellberg Haecker felt very lucky to be able to continue the work.
“It’s been fun working in Hamilton, people are very intrigued.
“We have spent some time educating people what the rights of a guide dog and its trainer are.”
There are about 50 people around the country waiting on a guide dog.
Hamilton has a few vision impaired clients, also known as handlers, and a number of puppy raisers too.
At 9 weeks old, puppies go into ‘puppy raising homes’ with volunteers to learn good home behaviour and how to be a good citizen on the street. Training starts at 14 months old onsite in Manurewa. When they are about 2 years old they move in with their handler – or vision impaired client.
Initially, a trainer starts with six dogs, but as work progresses, dogs can be released from the programme due to sickness, or being easily distracted, for example. They must have the X-factor.
The hope is that a trainer ends up with at least four dogs each.
Trainers are in cadetship for three years. They learn how to train the dog, but also how handlers fit into the equation.
“The most important part of a trainer is understanding what the dog is communicating. It’s about reading the dog’s body language and understanding what they need to do for someone who is blind or has low vision,” Mellberg Haecker said.
The not-for-profit organisation relies on money-raising avenues and a lot of effort is put into fundraising initiatives.
To donate, visit the Blind Low Vision NZ website.