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Saturday, 26 May 2018 09:49 am

Blind worried public transport pets may spook guide dogs

May 9th, 2018 | By | Category: Editor's Picks, Lead Story, News

Pets may cause issues for guide dogs under Wellington’s new public transport rules.

Guide Dog Mobility instructor, Blind Foundation Kim Morton (left) with Ra Smith and Golden Retriever guide dog Dendi.

Some handlers and trainers are concerned over the new ruling allowing pets on buses and trains.

Kim Norton a guide dog mobility instructor for the Wellington region says she has about 20 handlers who regularly take public transport, and there was no consultation with them.

“It’s the distraction factor as the dogs get on the bus,” Norton says

Guide dogs are highly trained but they are dogs first, a fact the general public doesn’t always understand, Norton says.

One of the main reasons guide dogs retire early is interference from other animals.

According to a survey conducted by The Seeing Eye, the world’s oldest school for training guide dogs, nearly 85% of guide dog teams experienced serious interference from other dogs and that almost 75% of those incidents involved dogs that were leashed but inadequately controlled.

This interference can be as seemingly harmless as another dog wanting to visit to a dog barking or lunging constantly at the guide dog causing the animal to become nervous or lose focus, and in some cases aggressive.

Norton says she knows of at least three incidents in New Zealand where a guide dog had to undergo vet treatment due to an attack by a pet dog.

George Taggart with guide dog Gus.

George Taggart, 81, who has been working guide dogs for 12 years, says sometimes he feels the responsibility is more on him rather than other dog owners to control their dogs.

“My dog is working and needs to concentrate, and if the dog is distracted it would not only put my dog in danger but me as well. That training can be broken if the wrong stimuli occurs.”

Taggart says he has sympathy for those who want to travel with their pets, but he is worried about animals who may not be as well socialised to public places as guide dogs.

“Riding public transportation is stressful enough, and this is just another challenge.”

The new policy says pets must be in carriers, fit on their owner’s laps or in the luggage compartment.

Stephen Heath, spokesperson for Greater Wellington Regional Council, says owners of disability assistance dogs can be assured their concerns are understood.

“Our bus drivers and train managers can require pet owners to leave at the next stop or station if their pet is causing an issue, be it in relation to a disability dog or anything else.”

However, Norton says she is concerned about bus drivers and train staff having to police the issue.

Ra Smith, who works for the Blind Foundation as an employment services workflow coordinator, says he wants to have the mindset of being inclusive, and it being a nice thing for people to travel with their pets.

“But the whole process should be treated with a level of respect, not only to the other animals, but humans as well.”

Taggart, Smith, and Norton are unaware of any consultation the council may have had with disability organisations before the policy was passed.

The first they heard of it was in news articles or from other people.

“Public transport is so important for our members and others who use assistance dogs,” Norton says.  She would have liked to know of any consultation.

Norton, Taggart, and Smith hope this will be an opportunity to raise public awareness for pet owners.

Norton is in contact with MetLink to add a section on guide dog etiquette to their travel page.

“Let the handler know you are there with your animal and that might be why their dog is distracted,” she says.

Taggart says maybe passengers with pets could sit to the rear of the bus if there is a disability assistance dog on board and leave by the back door.

Heath says it will take a while for everyone to adjust to the new rules and rub along.

“We are taking an inclusive approach to pets on public transport based on their secure carriage and reasonable behaviour rather than their purpose,” Heath says.

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