On Saturday we went to the Guide Dogs WA open day to check out the dog shows and talk to some people about their training. My curiosity about them had been reinvigorated by Mr W, who is a Labradoodle guide dog and works with one of my collegues. Mr W has just been matched with his human and he is two and a half, so still puppyish in some ways, but he has a very important job.
I had read a bit about the history of Guide Dogs in Western Australia, and it turns out the first Guide Dogs in the whole of Australia were trained right here in Perth. They were exported to the eastern states, and some even went to New Zealand, as well as being provided to the visually impaired in WA.
We saw the adult dogs ignore a kid kicking a ball right past their noses, heel almost perfectly on the leash even though there were some people in the audience trying to distract them, and do a restrained recall.
I think Barbie would have passed all those tests, but they were similar kinds of tests to the Canine Good Citizen Award which she earned in February of this year. I don't think Barbie would have the mental stamina to do what these dogs are required to do as part of their jobs though.
When they have their harnesses on they are trained to see themselves as 'bigger'. They have to judge obstacles so that their handler can walk unimpeded. They have to look out for narrow openings, potholes, signposts and overhead obstacles as well. They look for traffic (though the human makes the ultimate decision of when to cross the road), and they are trained to refuse the 'forward' command if there is an obstruction or danger. Imagine training a dog to use it's discretion like that!
Volunteer puppy raisers keep the dogs in their homes for the first 18 months to 2 years of their lives. During that time the dogs are taught basic house manners and obedience, and they spend time at the Guide Dogs WA headquarters and get lessons from their trainers. They always need people to do this job and it requires a fair bit of commitment. I know I would feel awful if the dog didn't make the grade in the end, even if it was something to do with the dog's personality or make up.
It would be a great 'job' for someone who loves having young dogs and the challenges that brings. It must be so rewarding to hand the dog over at the end to the human it will be helping!
It was not all serious, we got to pat some 7 month old pups. There was one in particular called Angus who seemed to lead all the other puppies astray! I also got to pat Mr W because he was out of harness for his 'quick quick' break. He has been working in my office for 3 weeks and I haven't even patted him yet.
I think I admire guide dogs so much because they represent a really sophisticated way of a human working with a dog. These dogs are responsible for the safety and mobility of their owners day after day.