New Zealand Guide Dogs Face Dangerous Attacks from Humans and Other Dogs

 |  May 4th 2007  |   2 Contributions


Thanks to Stuff.co.nz for this article.

Attacks a common threat to guide dogs
By MICHAEL FIELD - The Dominion Post

AdvertisementLeo is one tough and loyal old companion. Three times in the past 18 months, the West Auckland guide dog has been savaged by pit bull terriers.

Once, guiding his handler Petrus Tuerlings along the street, somebody shot at Leo with an air rifle, hitting him the leg.


Leo, an 11-year-old great dane-pointer cross guide, is a survivor and for the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB) a symbol of the war-zone their guide dogs work in.

Not only is it an expensive battle with dogs costing the foundation $22,500 each to breed and train, but after an attack many dogs have to be retrained or withdrawn.

For their handlers that can be a catastrophe as there is a long waiting list for trained guide dogs and a hurt dog cannot be quickly put back into action.

Foundation guide dog instructor Angie Coupar told Fairfax Media that in the last year 15 of their dogs ? worth around $330,000 - have required significant veterinary intervention following dog attacks.

"The out of control dog population is a significant risk to our dogs, historically and lately," she said.

"Menacing behaviour toward guide dogs happens on a daily basis some where in New Zealand."

The plight of guide dogs at the jaws of fighting dogs has been highlighted by the recent spate of attacks around the country, including the fatal mauling of a Bay of Plenty woman.

Mr Tuerlings was with his dog when it was hit by an air rifle and managed to get to the vet quickly. But then there have been the pitbull attacks. He has been bitten by them and finds them utterly frightening.

"I am more frightened for (Leo) than for me."

In the latest attack in December a pitbull charged at Leo, tearing his stomach.

"There was no warning, he just came running out."

Although a big dog, Leo didn't fight.

"He was giving little whimpers and little nips at the dog because he was latched onto the stomach, but he wasn't really fighting at all."

RNZFB says both the guide dog and handler suffer crises of confidence after attacks.

"I think my confidence has waned more than Leo's."

Just the other day they were out walking and Mr Tuerlings heard dogs barking ahead. He stopped, nervous.

"Leo stopped; I was going 'huh what's happening there?' So he turned around and went home. He could pick up that I was nervous and he thought we should go home."

It is tough; his West Auckland suburb is known for it's out of control dog problem.

For Guide Dog Services the problem is made more awkward by the need to breed and train non-aggressive dogs.

"If one of our dogs shows aggression they cannot be used," Ms Coupar says.

"It makes it more difficult for one to defend itself.

"It's not used to that kind of behaviour, they have been socialised all their lives with other friendly dogs?. They are restricted in a harness; they cannot jump or leap out of the way."

They train dogs to communicate with other dogs.

"They can give signals like; 'I'm friendly, I'm not threat to you, let me walk down the footpath and I'll go about my business, I'm not interested in any aggie bargee with you'."

But they cannot do any more.

"There is no way we can train the dogs to do anything. We cannot train them to respond aggressively or defend themselves. They are guide dogs and they are out there in the public eye the whole time and they have to be beyond public reproach."

After an attack from another dog, the guide dog's temperament can change.

"They now see other dogs as a potential threat?. Depending on the individual dog's temperament, if these events continue to occur, eventually the guide dog will think 'I'd better get in there first, before this dog attacks me' and then you can begin to have an aggressive response from a guide dog."

Once that happens the guide dog has to be withdrawn.

After an attack the handler can lose confidence too and that affects the dogs.

A guide dog needs a confident and relaxed handler and the dog will pick up the human's tensions. The dog can be distracted by that, placing the handler in danger.

They try to patch up the dog's physical injuries and then re-socialise it by flooding it with lots of friendly dogs.

"But is it fair on the guide dogs? Even the ones that are patched up and put back on the road they say 'like I'm okay, I'm reasonably comfortable with this' but you can see it in their body language."

Ms Coupar puts the problem on the owners of aggressive dogs.

"Personally I don't think there is any need for these fighting dogs in the country at all."

She says in many of the cases of attacks on guide dogs, the owners of the aggressive dogs have had it fenced but they often get out.

"While you have these breeds out there this kind of thing is always going to happen."

Often the handlers have to move because the area has become too dangerous.

"That's so unfair, should he have to move his house because some people will not control their dogs properly."

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