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Not just an ordinary dog!

Not just an ordinary dog!

Ever thought about how the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind's (RNZFB) Guide Dog Services takes what looks like an ordinary puppy and turns it into a hard-working, responsive guide dog for a blind or vision-impaired New Zealander?

Well, it takes loads of genetic research, selection, experience, training and assessment to produce the puppies that will eventually qualify as guide dogs.

The RNZFB relies completely on public donations to raise the $22,500 it needs to produce each guide dog and this month the RNZFB is appealing for the public's help to turn its puppies into fully-trained guide dogs.

Creating a guide dog starts with research and a scientific approach before the breeding stock even get within a sniff of each other.

Guide Dog Services General Manager Ian Cox says around fifty percent of creating a guide dog is about how the genes interact and it is the job of Guide Dog Services to try and predict this.

"We are very selective in choosing dogs to be brood bitches and stud dogs, to ensure that they continue the right traits while eliminating problems. Three percent of graduating dogs are special enough to be withheld as guide dog breeding stock for the next generation of guide dogs."

"We've already invested 10 years in extensive research as part of the Douglas Pharmaceuticals Guide Dog Breeding Improvement Programme, identifying the right combination of ingredients to make a successful guide dog."

Mr Cox says the research also involves continual monitoring and assessment of breeding stock dogs throughout their lives. This is important because the RNZFB expects its guide dogs to be able to live active and healthy lives and work for approximately 10 years before they retire.

Research is also essential when Guide Dog Services source exotic breeds of dogs like Australian Shepherds, Boxers, Border Collies and Dalmatians from external breeders. Guide Dog Services is careful about the pups it selects and it's essential that homework be done on these lines of dogs.

Mr Cox says the other fifty percent of creating a guide dog lies in the environment the puppy is raised in. This is where the volunteer puppy walkers prove to be so important to the dog's development.

"When the puppies are seven weeks old they are placed with a volunteer puppy walker as part of the CHAMP Guide Dog Puppy Development Programme, says Mr Cox.

On that programme food, veterinary care and products, registration and equipment are all provided free of charge thanks to the many supporters of the RNZFB's Guide Dog Services.

"Puppy walkers socialise the puppies, rather than train them, and introduce them to situations they will face as working guide dogs."

"Puppy walkers are also responsible for ensuring the puppies develop sound sleep patterns and for teaching them to walk confidently on a lead in many different environments. They also take them on trains and buses, into shopping malls, up and down lifts, on escalators, up see-through stairs and teach them to interact with animals especially cats and other dogs!"

By making the dog as comfortable in as many situations as they can, when the Guide Dog Trainer takes over, the dog can just concentrate on training.

The Puppy Development Manager checks each puppy's progress every two weeks until they are six months old and then monthly until they are 15 months old.

When the puppies are approximately 15 months old they begin training.

Before the actual training starts though, the dogs are assessed three times on 65 personality and temperament traits, 13 health aspects and 21 guiding tasks. These traits are assessed during the five-walk, twenty-walk and final training walk. To achieve this each young dog is taken into different situations like heavy traffic, residential areas and out at night to see how they react and perform.

Mr Cox says, "Around thirty percent of dogs don't make it through this stage. The rest of the dogs, about 70 percent, then go through in-depth 4 to 6 month training where they are taught how to guide a person, to avoid obstacles, work through traffic and to locate common destinations."

Once the dog's individual training is finished, they are matched with a blind or vision-impaired person and they are trained to work together as a team.

Their unique relationship is not just based on skill but the development of mutual trust and confidence.

The Guide Dog Instructor provides a follow-up service three times in the first year to make sure the team is working well together, and then checks them every year and as needed (eg; traffic checks are carried out each time).

Guide Dog Services receives no government funding. The whole process from breeding to working dog depends on public donations - and it is with this public support that these puppies become more than ordinary dogs.

The 2003 Guide Dog Appeal will be held from Friday 28 - Sunday 30 March to raise money for guide dogs and other essential services for blind and vision-impaired New Zealanders.

Please give generously when you see our collectors on the streets - your support really is appreciated.

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