SUMMER 23/24

Who’s a ‘Good Dog’!
There are eleven Seeing Eye Dog puppies in training on the Central Coast, each with stories to tell.

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Imran gets ready for school each morning. His two mums take him down to the big yellow van that calls for him in front of his home in East Gosford. He’s excited to see his fellow classmates and they head off to a full day’s schooling and training.

Imran is due to graduate soon (he’s been passing his tests with flying colours) but until his graduation and until he’s paired with his future companion, nothing is certain. For you see, Imran is a Seeing Eye Dog in training and although he’s had around $50,000 invested in his upbringing and training, his skills and behaviour have to be perfect for a person who is blind or has low vision to be able to totally rely on him. [UPDATE: Imran passed his final test and has now been assigned his very own low-vision person to partner with!]

There are currently 11 Seeing Eye Dog puppies on the Central Coast overseen by Puppy Development Trainer Jess McKenzie, as well as five young adult dogs in later stages of training with instructors Luca Taliana, Mikaela Smith and Shi Lin Tan.

Jen Wicker in Kariong is a puppy carer and her first Seeing Eye Dog puppy is Cricket, now eight months old. 

‘I wanted a dog but at my stage of life I don’t want one that is going to out-live me. So a puppy for a year at a time is the best of both worlds.’

Jen received Cricket at four months and it is her role to socialise him and get him used to a wide range of new situations.

‘He’s just beginning to understand that when he wears his “Seeing Eye Dog Puppy in Training” jacket that this means “work” and he has to focus. I take him on the train, bus, ferry, in taxis, to cafés, shopping centres and in lifts. But not on an escalator, that’s for the professional trainers to teach him when he’s a little older.’

Jen ensures he always walks on the left and on a loose lead. ‘He stays on the lead when we go for walks so he doesn’t get too distracted.’

For Elizabeth Scott and Emma Dunch, young Imran’s carers, having a Seeing Eye Dog in training was the ideal answer to their busy lives involved in the arts and as senior executives. ‘He’s at school every weekday from nine till five, so we have him at night and on weekends.

‘We walk him in the mornings before school – but nothing too strenuous so he’s not too tired for the training sessions.

‘Living in an apartment, he’s become quite adept at stairs. He needs to “anchor” at the first step to indicate a rise, and again to indicate the last step up. At home, he’s chilled-out and relaxed, loves his toy box, and doesn’t chew our shoes or the furniture.’

Imran has already had interesting life experiences. He’s been to music concerts (his favourite seems to be Renaissance music) and loves to accompany Elizabeth on her stand-up paddle board.

‘He has a life vest and I put him on board off the jetty in Caroline Bay,’ says Elizabeth. ‘His tail doesn’t stop wagging.’

Elizabeth recalls taking their first trainee dog, Kasey, to a theatre show.

‘We called in advance, so they were prepared for us. We were a bit nervous because we didn’t want to risk interrupting the performance but during the First Act Kasey was absolutely quiet. Then the actor on stage had to cry. Kasey was quite distressed and tried to take off to comfort her. I pulled her back and sat her down and gave her a treat. Luckily, the show went on without interruption.’

Left: Imran and Elizabeth. Right: Jess with Walker.

Unlike the training dog carers, puppy carers do most of the training themselves and are responsible for providing around-the-clock care. 

NSW Puppy Development Trainer Jess McKenzie says puppy carers don’t need any prior experience. 

‘We are looking for people who love dogs and can commit to providing a safe and loving home for our puppies. They have support every step of the way, with regular one-on-one and group training sessions and an active community of volunteers.’

‘We are always looking for more puppy carers and also relief carers for short-term needs,’ says Jess. ‘We also need carers for our young dogs, like Imran, that have begun formal Seeing Eye Dog training,’ 

In return for loving and caring for the dogs, the trainee puppies’ food, vet bills, flea and worming treatments, harnesses, crates and bedding are all paid for by donations to Vision Australia. The Petbarn Foundation raised over $1.3 million this year alone. Royal Canin supply precision nutrition. Zoetis (Simparica Trio) provides the parasite protection treatments. And Greencross vets provide discounted health checks for the pups. City Farmers, too, raises in-store donations.

Guide Dog trainer, Jack Lord, rewarding a ‘Good Dog’ after a successful training session.

The pups go through several assessments to determine which are suitable to become working Seeing Eye Dogs. It’s the dog-equivalent of graduating from SAS training and not all puppies will successfully graduate. Those who don’t may go to equally important roles as service dogs but, for a person who is blind or has low vision, there is no room for error.

The question carers always get asked is, ‘How can you give them up?’

Jen Wicker says she will miss Cricket. ‘But I know I am going to be fine, and I don’t love him any less for knowing he will move on.’

For Elizabeth and Emma, the answer came when they watched online as their second dog, Melvin, graduated in Melbourne.

‘We saw Melvin lead the man he’d been matched up with as they went up onto the stage for Melvin to be awarded his graduation certificate, and we felt like we were part of something much bigger. We were so proud and that gave us a form of peace. And we knew we wanted to do it again.’

sed.visionaustralia.org/puppy-caring 

WORDS CATHARINE RETTER

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