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A sight for sore eyes

Featured Annette Ferguson: "What Delta will do is give me a break. What she means for me is mobility and independence. And freedom..." Photo: Dubbo Weekender. Annette Ferguson: "What Delta will do is give me a break. What she means for me is mobility and independence. And freedom..." Photo: Dubbo Weekender.

She’s beautiful, intelligent and mature beyond her years. Meet Delta – the Guide Dog who’s helping give vision impaired Dubbo woman Annette Ferguson a new lease on life.

Meet Delta. A stunning blonde with beautiful brown eyes, a slender build, personality to burn and intelligence well beyond her tender years.

The girl’s a catch by any measure. 

But to vision impaired mother of two Annette Ferguson, Delta is much more than the sum of her good looks. She represents freedom and independence.

Because Delta is a Guide Dog.

Ferguson, who has albinism, has been, to all intents and purposes, legally blind since birth – put very simply, her vision is significantly impaired by the inability of her iris to absorb light.

To an extent, the capable 48 year old has been a casualty of her lifelong determination not to be defined by her disability. Her refusal to play the “victim” means she’s often not sought or been given assistance where and when it was needed, relying instead on well-practised routine and a resignation to sometimes missing out.

Twelve months ago, the busy graphic designer, decided it was time to ask for help. 

That help arrived last week in the form of an 18 month old golden Labrador – a “gift” from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, whose services are provided to vision impaired clients free of charge.

With the help of experienced trainer Danielle Hogan, Ferguson is learning to place her trust in Delta, who in turn, for the duration of their lives together will be her new mistress’ “eyes”, guiding her through and around the kinds of everyday tasks the majority of us take so much for granted.

“It’s been so hard for so long,” says a grateful Ferguson. “What Delta will do is give me a break. What she means for me is mobility and independence. And freedom.”

•••

When we meet, the “dog person” in me fights an almost losing battle against the instinct to pat and gush over Delta – despite knowing better thanks to many volunteer years with the local Guide Dogs support group. It’s rule number one – don’t pat a dog when it’s in harness and working – but so engaging is she, the urge is almost irresistible.

Throughout the day, I’ll learn I’m not alone. Time and time again, well-meaning hands will reach towards Delta’s head. Fortunately, most people either remember at the last minute, or stop and ask if it’s okay to “say hello” – and the answer is always a gentle “no”.

According to Hogan, even one well-intentioned pat can undo months of training, particularly at this stage of Delta’s learning.

“Whenever you see a Guide Dog in harness, it’s working. Any distraction – even too much eye contact or directly talking to the dog – can take its attention away from the job, and for the vision impaired person that can be frustrating at best, dangerous at worst.”

Hogan is here in Dubbo for the month, helping both Ferguson and another recipient get used to their dogs and vice-versa. There’s a lot that goes into training one of these >> 

extraordinary animals before they put on their professional harness – and a significant amount of on-the-job training for the recipients as well.

Guide Dogs make it look easy, but the handling techniques are many and it takes a great deal of concentrated coaching to ensure that both dog and owner are comfortable in what is an unusual human/animal relationship.

At a cost of around $30,000 per animal, whoa to go – and considering only around half of the puppies bred and trained will make it through to fully fledged Guide Dog – it’s an investment the not-for-profit organisation is keen to protect, along with its reputation for providing its myriad services free of charge to vision impaired people. Hogan is here to make sure the relationship is going to work – for Delta’s sake as much as for Ferguson.

Our first stop for the day is Ferguson’s workplace, at Western College – a training provider that’s home, during the day, to lots of people, lots of noise and lots of movement.

Today’s visit is Delta’s first introduction to Ferguson’s work environment, and everyone wants to say hello.

So for a rare treat, Hogan allows her harness to come off so everyone can have a pat. Taking the harness off lets Delta know it’s okay to “play” – that’s she’s “on a break” – so it doesn’t distract her from the job at hand.

Once back in the harness, she’ll learn to sit quietly in her possie under Ferguson’s desk, and to navigate around the workplace, and out into the car-park where her mistress’ transport drops her off and picks her up.

The same is true of most of Ferguson’s regular haunts – to do the shopping, visit the medical centre, go for coffee, visit friends. By the end of her initial training and familiarisation, Delta will be able to safely take her “mum” to wherever it is she wants to go – on the command, “Find coffee” or “Find school” or “Find IGA”.

It’s like having a furry, four-legged GPS, I quip in admiration. 

“Not far off,” says Ferguson, laughing, but it’s serious business for her to be able to navigate safely around the demands of her busy working week.

“I’m really sensitive to light, so trying to find my way safely around without tripping on steps or things that are in the way, or even just on uneven ground is exhausting, because I have to have my eyes open and it’s painful. Really painful.

 

“With Delta, I’ll be able to do so much more and go to more places and do more things, because I’ll be able to close my eyes against that pain and just trust her. It will be really liberating.”

 

As the month progresses, Ferguson will learn how to handle Delta, who in turn will get used to practicing the skills she’s learned during her training.

She was chosen, as are all Guide Dogs, for her overall health and willingness to learn, but also her ability to concentrate and not be distracted by food or other animals.

According to Hogan, this is why Guide Dogs are so special.

“With other working dogs, like cattle and sheep dogs, for instance, you’re playing to their natural instincts. That’s not so with a Guide Dog. We actually ask them to go against their natural instincts, so it takes a special dog and a lot of very careful training.”

With careful training, Delta will need to learn how to handle an unexpected event like a car reversing from a driveway, or something blocking a usually flat route. She’ll learn to travel through confusing and crowded areas like shopping centres and city streets and she’ll learn how to find various landmarks and cross roads safely.

It’s remarkable to watch this beautiful young dog going about learning the ins and outs of her new job.

Ferguson is already confidently giving her new companion commands, both verbally and with body and hand movements.

“Forward,” she’ll say, with a sweep of her hand. And Delta will gently move off.

“Find the door,” says Ferguson and the dog, allowing extra room on her mistress’ right, turns towards the entrance of the building. It’s part of her training to identify and remember doors to new places, so she can confidently navigate her way backwards and forwards to and from exits and entrances.

There’s nothing hurried or excited about her movements, despite being only a puppy. She’s already the best behaved, and dare I say it, most intelligent 18 month old I’ve ever met.

 

Next stop on the day’s agenda is to a lunch-time meeting of the Rotary club of which Ferguson is a member – so this is part of her regular weekly routine, and Delta will need to learn how to safely navigate through the car-park, into the busy pub and through to the meeting room.

Delta is again greeted with enthusiastic “oohs and aaahs” and again, some well-meaning pats are averted with a quick but polite, “please don’t pat the dog while she’s in her harness”. Everyone understands, and while Delta remains a welcome distraction for the members, she manages not to herself be distracted by the noise and movement in the wooden-floored room.

She’s slightly startled by the first couple of bursts of applause as the meeting progresses, but she’s soon lying quietly at Ferguson’s feet, awaiting command.

Hogan takes club members through a few of the dos and don’ts of Guide Dog etiquette, and before long, there’s talk of inducting Delta into the club’s ranks. It’s a nice gesture, given this special dog has just become part of the Rotary “family”.

After the meeting, I’m honoured to play taxi – my reward for which is a much-anticipated “play” with Delta once we arrive home and her harness is removed.

I find myself driving more cautiously than ever – like a new parent with a “baby on board” for the first time.

My special passenger sits between Ferguson’s knees in the front seat floor well – designed to keep her not only in close touch with her owner, but safer should a sudden stop be necessary.

When we pull into the driveway, Delta knows she’s home – and for the first time, her excitement shows.

The harness is removed, and the reserved and focussed working dog turns happily into the rambunctious Labrador puppy she is – scooting at speed around the back yard to burn off some of the energy she’s had to keep a lid on during the day.

She’s made friends with the family’s cats – although she’s yet to meet the gentle but horse-like Barney the Great Dane, who’s on a little holiday with friends while his new “sister” settles in.

“It’s often easier to work with people who already understand dogs,” says Hogan, adding that Ferguson is a quick study when it comes to the nuances of Guide Dog handling.

 

After a couple of well-earned hours off, Delta is back in harness for perhaps the most nerve-wracking of all exercises so far – at least it certainly feels that way for Ferguson. It’s the first solo walk for the new best friends.

It’s a walk they’ve done a number of times with Hogan in tow. Now it’ll just be the two of them – as it will soon be most of the time.

Hogan and I are waiting at the other end in the gathering golden light of the late winter afternoon as Ferguson strides confidently and proudly down the drive of her destination. Delta trots happily alongside – having successfully navigated busy streets and roundabouts, a train line and whizzing after-work traffic to bring her new “mum” safely to one of her favourite coffee haunts. It’s a trip they’re likely to do together often, and they’re off to a great and comfortable start.

“That felt really good,” says Annette Ferguson, bending to pat the golden head resting against her knee.

I’m sure Danielle Hogan and I share the urge to hug both woman and dog. 

We settle for a smile and some words of encouragement instead.

With that, Delta’s day is done.

And a new chapter in Annette Ferguson’s life is beginning.

Take the lead

One of the most significant challenges facing Delta and her new owner Annette Ferguson when they’re going about their daily routine, is likely to come from other dogs. According to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT:

  • 54% of handlers surveyed said their guide dog had been attacked by another dog while working
  • 29% of guide dogs attacked sustained injuries, with one retired as a result of the trauma
  • 70% of attacks on a guide dog were caused by an off-lead dog, with dogs on a lead (but not controlled by their owner) responsible for the other 30% of attacks
  • 50% of guide dogs attacked were attacked more than once in the past three years
  • 86% of handlers said off-lead dogs had distracted their guide dogs while they were working.

If you are a dog owner, you can help by making sure your dog is on a leash when in public. This makes sense not only for the safety of Guide Dogs and their owners, but for everyone.

Guide Dogs are well trained, but they’re not robots, according to the association.

Even when they’re on a lead, if they’re not controlled, other animals can distract a Guide Dog, making him or her anxious and thereby putting the blind or vision impaired person’s independence and safety at risk.

It’s up to all dog owners to take the lead.

Some dos and don’ts

If you see Annette and Delta out and about, you can help by observing some simple and sensible rules of “etiquette”. These apply to any Guide Dog:

  • Try not to make the dog the centre of attention.
  • Please don’t pat, feed or otherwise distract Delta, or any Guide 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. The only place Delta won’t be able to go in Dubbo is Taronga Western Plains Zoo, due to quarantine restrictions.