Well well well, here we are. I have been promising that I would tell you more about my guide dog Cora, and the time has finally arrived. I am also going to share more about guide dog mobility in general too.
In Australia, the breed that is most commonly trained to be guide dogs is the Labrador. There are a few reasons for this. Labs are smart dogs that are easily trained (they would do just about anything for a piece of kibble). They are also very loyal dogs. They love to be by your side and will do their best to please you. Labs are also perceived to be very friendly dogs. I was once told that Australia phased out German Shepherds because they were often perceived as being aggressive. Considering these dogs go into all sorts of public spaces including restaurants, shopping centres, and taxis, a dog that is perceived as being friendly is less likely to face access issues.
We are very fortunate in Australia these days because the National Disability Insurance Scheme helps cover the financial costs of having a guide dog. For those people who are eligible to access the scheme, expenses such as food, grooming, vet visits, and worming treatment can be covered. Before the scheme was introduced, many people would not have been able to afford a guide dog, especially as a disproportionately high percentage of people who are blind are unemployed.
Guide dog mobility is teamwork. Think of it almost as a navigator and a pilot. It is my job (as navigator) to know where we are going and how to get there, which train to catch, and when to prompt the dog to find something. It is Cora’s job (as pilot) to avoid obstacles, target familiar destinations (such as the office door or the tram stop), and to stop at kerbs. But then it is my job to decide when it is safe to cross the road. Many people overestimate what the dogs can do. They do not know when the light turns green, that is up to me. And while she might stop me from walking if a car runs a red light, this isn’t something I should totally rely on.
When a guide dog school matches a dog with a handler there are many things that are taken into account.
Personality. Does the handler want a dog that is playful and energetic at home, or one that is happy to snooze on its bed?
Temperament. Does the handler want a dog that needs routine and predictability, or one that wants to explore new places whenever possible?
Lifestyle. Does the handler have a 9 to 5 office job, or do they travel to new places frequently?
Physical size and walking speed. Does the handler want a smaller dog that can fit on public transport and in taxis easier, or a larger dog that might walk faster?
Personal preferences. Does the handler want a male/female, or a yellow/black dog?
These examples only scratch the surface of the myriad of different variables that are considered.
Some guide dogs are more than happy to plod to the supermarket and back once or twice a week, and that’s it. In this case, they would probably be matched with a less active, possibly older, handler who may live in a quiet country town.
Other dogs like the hustle and bustle of city life. They love weaving through crowds and hopping on and off public transport. These dogs often like to explore new areas and are more likely to be bored by a routine.
This second type of dog is Cora. Cora was matched with me because my lifestyle (pre-COVID anyway) involved a lot of variety. One day I would be on campus for uni, the next I would be gallivanting through the city with friends, the next I would be tracking down a new chocolate shop in the suburbs, and the next I would be sitting at home studying. I needed a dog that was very adaptable and full of initiative and drive. And I definitely needed a dog who was comfortable in the city (especially as I moved to an inner-city apartment not long after we trained together). She flourishes in busy and challenging environments. Cora is a good size for me, and she walks fast (which is something I love)!
As I shared in my last post, my first guide dog, Josette, passed away very unexpectedly when she was still young. Josie was such as sweet girl. She was quiet and placid, and she was super obedient. I used to tether her to my backpack in the staffroom at work. And even though there were other dogs in the room, and she could have easily wandered around with my backpack in toe, she never did. She knew where she needed to be, and she would wait there for me to return. I loved Josie ridiculously. Plus, being my first guide dog, she will always have a very special place in my heart.
I must admit that it took me a long time to bond with Cora. Cora is a very different dog. She is boisterous and super energetic. Poor Cora had big shoes to fill after Josie. I think I found it hard to accept her into my life because I felt bitter and as though it was unfair that I was training with a new dog already. Many experienced dog handlers refer to this as “second dog syndrome” because it’s hard not to compare your second dog to your first. However, I was very aware of this and actively tried to avoid it. I knew it was unfair on Cora to expect her to be the same as Josette. And while Cora was a handful at first (and still can be at times) I do love her a lot. One thing that really helped me to welcome Cora into my heart was recognising, and being grateful for, her strengths. It’s true. Every dog has different strengths and weaknesses, just as every human does. While Josie was very quiet and obedient, she didn’t have as much initiative as Cora.
Cora often amazes me. When I was studying at Monash University, we would sit our exams at Caulfield Racecourse. That’s not a place I visit at any other time other than at the end of each semester. Six months after sitting my first exam with Cora as my guide dog, we headed to the racecourse again for another long and arduous day (probably an economics exam or something). Even though Cora had only been there once before, and not for six months mind you, she took me right from the gate, all the way across the big open area, to the door of the exam room. Amazing! In my last post I compared a cane to a guide dog and discussed the pros and cons of both. But that right there must be one of the biggest pros of guide dog mobility. And being able to walk so freely is equally as amazing!
To finish painting a picture of my girl, here are ten fun facts about her:
- She loves playing hide and seek in our apartment
- Her favourite treats are carrots (closely followed by apples, Whimzees, blueberries… who am I kidding… anything at all!)
- She can shake hands on command (and then switch paws when I say “other one”)
- She will often sleep upside down with her legs resting up the wall
- Her snoring could easily be mistaken for Joan, Meg, Millie, or Alice (the four tunnel boring machines currently working on the Metro Tunnel Project in Melbourne)
- She is named after the Cora Sun-Drop Diamond (the largest known pear-shaped yellow diamond in the world) because she was a part of Guide Dog Victoria’s diamond jubilee litter in 2017 (their 60th birthday)
- She can recognise some of my family and friends in a crowd
- She has a bath every four weeks (it is important that she is always clean and smelling nice because she gets to go into lots of public spaces)
- She also loves playing fetch, and will put the toy back in my hand ready for the next throw
- I am teaching her to recognise her toys by name (e.g., ball, tyre, antler, and echidna)
Now I am sure you can understand why Cora is such a special girl. I consider myself lucky to have her (yes, even when she is being naughty!)