Cec Hayes, with Oden, reminds people not to distract guide dogs while they’re in harness.
Cec Hayes, with Oden, reminds people not to distract guide dogs while they’re in harness. Scott Davis

Distractions could spell disaster for guide dogs and owners

HAVING dogs brings many benefits.

For Cec Hayes, of Pottsville, his guide dog Oden has for the past five years been his constant companion, giving him confidence and independence.

Mr Hayes lost his sight overnight after a stroke in 2011.

He and Oden love to walk, but they strike a few problems when they're out - heavy traffic, dogs on the loose, and over-friendly pet lovers.

"It's amazing the number of people who just want to pat Oden," Mr Hayes said.

He and Guide Dogs NSW/ACT are keen to educate people about how to react to guide dogs.

"When he's in the harness, don't touch him or speak to him," Mr Hayes said.

Cec's wife Leonie says the couple have had some "difficulties" while out with Oden.

"At a store at Tweed Heads, Cec walked in with the dog and the woman ordered us out," she said.

"After a complaint, the manager rang and said it wasn't the woman's fault, she was upset that day."

International Guide Dog Day today sees the launch of the campaign Respect My Uniform, which reminds people to resist patting or distracting working guide dogs

Once a guide dog has its "uniform" on - its easily recognisable harness - it has a very important job to fulfil.

Each 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.

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 NSW/ACT CEO 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.

Dr White said in rare serious cases, ongoing distraction could 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."

Oden appreciates some of that treatment in the Hayes household.

"He's great company. It makes you go out because you have to walk him," Mr Hayes said.

His wife thinks the dog is "fantastic".

"To me, he's a great comfort. I know when Cec is out with him, he's safe and he'll return home," she said.

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.

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