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Guide Dogs NSW/ACT urges community to not distract working dogs in harness

Respect my uniform

You wouldn’t place your hands over the eyes of a taxi driver concentrating on the road ahead, or pat a surgeon on the back mid-way through an operation, as the consequences could be disastrous.

It would be just as irresponsible to distract a working Guide Dog.

Each day, members of the public place the safety of Guide Dog handlers at risk by patting, feeding and interacting with Guide Dogs, tasked with assisting those who are blind or vision impaired to independently get to where they need to go.

To address this issue, on International Guide Dog Day (Wednesday, April 27), Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is launching its public education campaign, Respect My Uniform, calling on the community to resist patting or distracting working Guide Dogs.

Like other professionals, once a Guide Dog has its uniform on – its easily recognisable harness – it has a very important job to fulfil.

Each highly skilled working dog has undergone almost two years of intensive training including how to navigate obstacles, travel on public transport, find landmarks such as bus-stops, and cross the road safely, before graduating.

The Respect My Uniform campaign follows the findings of a 2015 survey, in which 89 per cent of Guide Dog handlers reported that their Guide Dog had been distracted by members of the public in the past 12 months.

It will aim to educate the community that a well-intentioned pat can undo months of training, and frequent distraction can cause anxiety or serious injury for Guide Dogs and their handlers.

“Guide Dogs play a vital role in enabling people who are blind or vision impaired to get around independently and interference from members of the public can compromise this,” CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Dr Graeme White said.

“Any distraction to a working Guide Dog can put its handler’s safety at risk. If a Guide Dog is distracted while guiding its handler across the road, the consequences could be tragic,” he said.

“If 89 per cent of taxi drivers were distracted while driving, there would be national outrage.”

For Guide Dog handler and Australia’s Got Talent finalist, Matt McLaren, the incidence of members of the public attempting to distract his Guide Dog, Stamford, is a daily occurrence.

Matt McLaren with his Guide Dog Stamford
Matt McLaren with his Guide Dog Stamford

Matt, who has been blind since birth, received Stamford about eight years ago. With the amount of travel required for the talented musician to get to gigs, having a Guide Dog has allowed him to maintain an independent, busy life and a thriving career.

"Stamford enables me to do so much more than I could with a cane, such as carry music gear and travel confidently to new places," he said.

However, the public sometimes restrict his ability to move through different environments. “People will try to talk to Stamford while I am walking, make clicking noises, pat him while I move past them and try to make eye contact with him,” Matt said.

He said although most members of the community know they should not pat a Guide Dog in harness, many will often say, ‘I know I shouldn’t be doing this’, as they proceed to pat Stamford.

“It’s like a person on a diet saying ‘I know I shouldn’t eat this piece of chocolate cake’ but then going ahead and eating it anyway,” Matt said.

“The problem is people often don’t perceive the consequences of their actions.”

At a recent gig, Matt was carrying a keyboard into a venue and a member of the public wanted to play with his Guide Dog. “There was a staircase straight ahead, but as Stamford was not on the ball, I walked straight into it,” he said.

“I want the public to understand that distracting a working Guide Dog reduces its capacity to do what it has been trained to do, potentially putting my safety at risk. It can also be time consuming as I often need to refocus Stamford after he has been distracted before moving on.”

It is important for the community to understand that Guide Dogs in harness are on duty, whether they are physically guiding a person or sitting at their feet.

Dr White said in rare serious cases, ongoing distraction can result in the premature retirement of a Guide Dog, which costs more than $35,000 to breed, raise and train.

“This is why it is so important that people understand they should not feed, pat or otherwise distract a working Guide Dog,” he said.

“Of course once the harness comes off, and with the handler’s consent, you can pat and interact with a Guide Dog.”

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT will launch a new television commercial about Guide Dog etiquette on International Guide Dog Day and is also calling on the community to pledge to not distract Guide Dogs through a change.org petition.

For more information on Guide Dogs NSW/ACT please visit guidedogs.com.au or join the conversation follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/guidedogsnswact or Twitter @guidedogsnswact.

About International Guide Dog Day

International Guide Dog Day celebrates the important role Guide Dogs play in enabling freedom and independence for people living with vision loss.

The first Guide Dog to be trained In Australia was Beau, a Kelpie/Border Collie cross, in Perth in 1952. Beau and his blind owner Mrs Elsie Mead travelled all over Australia promoting Guide Dog mobility.

Guide Dogs Australia is a brand that represents Australia's six state-based Guide Dog organisations. Together, as the nation's leading providers of orientation and mobility services, including Guide Dogs, we support people living with blindness or vision loss to live independently and achieve their goals in life.

Guide Dog Etiquette

It takes a lot of concentration for a person who is blind or has impaired vision to work safely with a Guide Dog. To help the team focus on its important work, please follow these tips:

  • Please don't make the Guide Dog the centre of attention.
  • Please don’t pat, feed or otherwise distract the dog when it is working.
  • A well-intentioned pat can undo months of training.
  • Please don't grab the person or the dog's harness. First ask if they need assistance.
  • When providing guiding assistance, please walk on the opposite side of the person to the Guide Dog.
  • Please make sure your pet dog is on a leash or under control around a Guide Dog.
  • When approaching, it may be polite to let the person know that you have a dog with you.
  • Guide Dogs are legally allowed to accompany their handlers anywhere, including into restaurants and onto all forms of transport, ie taxis, buses, trains and planes.
  • Learn more about Guide Dog etiquette
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