Dogs Victoria celebrates milestone
Monday, November 5, 2007
By Jacqui Peake
Guide Dogs Victoria has come a long way 50 years, in fact and the organisations presence is hard to miss in Ballarat. If youre out and about in the main street in the morning, its likely you will see senior guide dog trainer Paula Foote with a young dog in harness, teaching the dog the skills it will need when guiding a legally blind person.
Paula has been training guide dogs for about eight years and says the methods of teaching have changed a lot over 50 years. I look at the way surgeons used to operate 50 years ago and they certainly do a lot of different surgery these days than what they did then,” she says. Its an evolving science, and we do use a fair bit of science in training dogs and its something thats evolvedwe have instructors coming from overseas to tell us about the way they do things.”
Part of the science, or at least the training, is a blindfold test. The first one is when the dog is eight weeks into its training, which for 15-month-old Victor, was last week. This test involves Paula wearing a blindfold, so the dog must guide her without the hand signals and sounds used as prompts in training. It gives an indication of the suitability of the dog to become a fully-fledged guide dog. And Victor looks like he is well on his way, according to Paula. Hes going to be a lovely guide dog if continues on the way hes going,” she says. But he does have a few points to work on. He needs to learn to walk into the harness a little firmer,” Paula says. Today he was being a little lax in guiding me. Hes doing the work but he just needs tobuild his confidencehes looking around a little bit at whats going on around him.”
For anyone who has been taken for a walk by a dog, the concept of encouraging a dog to pull forward may seem strange. Paula says it is harder to teach a gentle dog that walks at heel to pull forward than to teach a pushy one how to slow down and walk at heel. When the dog goes forward we gently build the harness tension so that the dog actually moves into the harness,” she says.
Inaccurate guiding can mean danger for a vision-impaired person, so some dogs in training dont become guide dogs. Some dogs start off beautifully and we think they are potentially going to be really good guide dogs and they might be very dog-distracted,” Paula says. Thats something that we can teach the dogs, to walk past another dog, but when theyre with a vision-impaired client, the dog may revert back to his pre-trained behaviour and thats something we cant deal withits also the case with being food-distracted or cat-distracted.”
If dogs dont make it through to the guide dog level, they are used in other programs run by Guide Dogs Victoria. We dont look it as though the dog has failed,” Paula says. Children who are vision-impaired can have one of our dogs free of charge and they can get to know what its like to have a dog. In the past weve had clients come in to have a guide dog, and theyve never actually been around a dog before. With a childwho may think of having a guide dog in the future its a really nice experience for them to have a dog to know that it needs to be fed and loved and cared for and groomedits not like a cane that you can just fold up and put in your bag if you dont want to use it.”
Another program, the companion animal program, involves dogs going to the homes of people with physical, social or intellectual disabilities. These people can enjoy having a really nice dog in the home,” Paula says. The dogs dont care if youre not feeling well or have a disability.”