Today is International Guide Dog Day, and handlers are making one message clear to the public – do not pat or distract a working animal.
Guide Dogs’ new campaign, Respect My Uniform, comes off the back of a 2015 survey finding that 89 per cent of guide dog handlers reported that their guide dog had been distracted by member of the public in the past 12 months.
Just like a man or woman in uniform, each guide dog has to undergo years of intensive training, including how to navigate obstacles, travel on public transport, find landmarks such as a bus-stop and cross the road safely, to graduate.
Respect My Uniform aims to educate the public 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.
Dr Graeme White, CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, says any distraction to a working guide dog can put its handler’s safety at risk.
“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,” he says.
“If a guide dog is distracted while guiding its handler across the road, the consequences could be tragic.”
Musician and Australia’s Got Talent finalist Matt McLaren — who’s been blind since birth — has had his guide dog, Stamford, for eight years. He says having a guide dog has allowed him to maintain an independent, busy life and a thriving career.
“I always thought it would be difficult to put that much trust in an animal, but receiving Stamford completely changed that. He was so confident, and straight away knew what to do. It was truly liberating,” he says.
“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.
“I’m living my life exactly the way I want to, and I want others to know that they can too.”
The only limitation Matt has in life is the public’s fascination with Stamford, which can restrict his ability to move through different environments easily.
“People try to talk to Stamford while I’m walking, making clicking noises, pat him while I move past them and try to make eye contact with him,” he says.
“I often hear, ‘I know I shouldn’t be doing this’ as they pat Stamford or they ask if it is okay after they have started to pat him.
“I often need to refocus Stamford’s attention after he has been distracted before moving on, which can be very time consuming.”
Matt’s had people swear at him when he’s asked them politely not to pat his dog, and Stamford’s even had food thrown at him. One time, Matt walked into a staircase because Stamford was distracted!
So please, guys — don’t pat or distract guide dogs, no matter how cute they are. You could be putting their handler in danger!