BRITTANY McCarthy smiles every time she sees a Seeing Eye Dog at work in the community.
“It’s very rewarding knowing I’ve been part of that process,” she said.
As a Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs puppy development trainer, it’s her job to help prepare the dogs to help people who are blind or have low vision live the lives they choose.
The people who volunteer to care for the dogs before formal training commences play a crucial part in Brittany’s role.
“It’s all about raising a well-mannered puppy that’s well socialised,” she said.
The puppies are about eight weeks of age when they are paired with volunteer carers.
They are part of the family until they are about 12 – 15 months old, when they return to Seeing Eye Dogs for formal training.
Like most other puppies in the community, Seeing Eye Dogs spend the first year of their lives exploring the world, receiving basic obedience training, and becoming socialised.
Only, a puppy learning to become a service dog has access to places most other dogs would not be allowed to visit.
Bendigo volunteer Lynna Feng said she seldom had cause to worry about how Pippa, her puppy, was while she was out and about because the dog was always with her.
Brittany said carers were encouraged to take their dogs everywhere with them so the pups would gain exposure to environments they were likely to encounter in their working lives.
During formal training, Seeing Eye Dogs are taught to help people who are blind or have low vision navigate the world around them.
Training includes stopping at curbs to indicate there is a hazard.
Brittany said the idea that Seeing Eye Dogs decide when a working pair ought to cross a road was a myth.
“It’s a decision made together,” she said.
Once alerted to a hazard, Brittany said clients would listen for the source of the danger.
Based on that information, they would decide whether or not to cross. The dog might indicate a hazard remained by staying seated – a prompt for further consideration.
The formal training would also teach the dog to find stairs, lifts, chairs and doors.
But that was not the work of the puppy carer. The carer’s role was to provide the puppy with a loving home and to help it develop the basic skills upon which to build its knowledge.
Though Lynna had trained a dog before, fellow volunteer carer Jennifer Gravrok was new to it.
A La Trobe University Bendigo student studying service dogs and how they help people, Jennifer was motivated to become a puppy carer by the desire to better understand the experiences of the people she was working with.
Brittany said the opportunity to become a puppy carer was open to people of all levels of experience.
Puppy development trainers, such as herself, work with the carers to give the dogs the best possible start to life.
“We will support you with all the food and equipment you need, plus free veterinary care at approved clinics, and we’re on-hand any time for advice,” Brittany said.
“We visit regularly for training sessions.”
Jennifer said she had been surprised by how well educated children in Bendigo were about service dogs.
She had noticed parents telling their children not to rush up to pet Patty if they encountered the dog out and about while wearing its vest because it was learning to help people.
Asked how they would feel about saying goodbye to their dogs when it was time to return to the Seeing Eye Dogs, both Jennifer and Lynna were optimistic.
Lynna, a fellow La Trobe University Bendigo student, was hopeful the end of Pippa’s stay would coincide with the end of her own studies.
She then intends to return to the U.S.A.
“You can always get another one,” Jennifer said.
Arrangements can be made for volunteers to receive a new puppy soon after the one they’ve been caring for leaves for formal training.
Seeing Eye Dogs is seeking volunteers in the Bendigo area.
“We had two litters in the last two weeks and there are more on the way,” Brittany said.
Pippa and Patty were born into a litter of about 11 dogs, roughly nine months ago.
Full-time puppy caring is not the only option available to volunteers, with opportunities for foster caring.
Brittany said people could also opt to care for breeding dogs.
Vision Australia regional manager Megan McDonald said being a puppy carer was a rewarding experience.
“I’ve met people with Seeing Eye Dogs. I know how liberating a Seeing Eye Dog is for them,” she said.
The call for volunteer puppy carers came ahead of International Day of Persons with a Disability, on Sunday.
The day is intended to celebrate the achievements and contributions of people with disability and increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with a disability.
“All of our services are geared to support our clients to pursue their interests in education, employment, social inclusion and independence, and to make sure that wherever it’s possible, maximise the vision that they have to achieve that,” Ms McDonald said.
She encouraged people to phone 1800 037 773 to learn more about becoming a Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs puppy carer.