Preparing Guide Dogs amidst a global pandemic

Wendy Mellberg Haecker

Throughout the first half of 2021, New Zealand was in the enviable position of having extremely low case numbers of COVID-19, with no community transmission and only 5 new cases in managed isolation as of 16 August.  A quarantine-free travel bubble had opened between New Zealand and Australia in April, and life felt fairly normal. Then, on 17 August, a case of the Delta variant was discovered in the community and was traced to a returnee from Sydney 10 days earlier. In an effort to limit the spread, Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city and home to the Blind Low Vision NZ Guide Dogs training programme, was put into a full Level-4 lockdown prohibiting travel for all but essential workers. This full lockdown would remain in place in Auckland for more than five weeks as the case numbers ebbed and flowed.

At the Guide Dog Centre, a group of 6 dogs were just weeks from completing their 16-week training programme when the operation shut down. Each of the dogs was fostered in a boarding home, the trainers were sent home, and all guide dog training ceased.

As a designated essential service, a limited number of Blind Low Vision NZ (BLVNZ) staff were granted authority to transport dogs, food and other necessary supplies to boarders and puppy raisers under the guidelines of contactless delivery. And when it appeared that a region neighbouring Auckland (Waikato) would drop to a Level-3 lockdown after 15 days, we applied for and received travel exemptions. My team, consisting of three cadet GDMIs and myself, travelled with the dogs 120km south of Auckland to continue the training in an attempt to qualify these 6 dogs and place them with our blind and low vision handlers.

We booked hotel rooms, found volunteer boarders in Hamilton, and commuted across the regional border every Monday morning, returning to our homes in Auckland on Friday afternoons. Each staff member was required to have a COVID-19 test within 48-hours of crossing the border, and so there were nasal swabs every 7 days at a drive through testing centre in the city of Hamilton.

Upon our arrival in Hamilton, we set out to learn the area and find the best locations in which to train the dogs. Under Level-3 lockdown, all hospitality venues and shopping malls remained closed, so our routes consisted only of outdoor work. Although this wasn’t ideal since the dogs were in the finishing phases of training, we made the most of the opportunity until the alert level was lowered to Level-2 one week later, allowing us to practice indoor work.

Guide dog training was not the norm in Hamilton, and it wasn’t long before we caught the attention of the local media and were featured in both the online and paper versions of the Waikato Times, with a big front page spread. This publicity helped to raise our profile in the city and informed the community of our attempts to continue delivering life-changing guide dogs in the midst of the pandemic.

In four weeks’ time, BLVNZ Guide Dog’s newest cadets had each qualified their first career guide dogs amid the most unusual of circumstances, and 6 waiting handlers were matched with their new mobility partners.

As of the writing of this story, New Zealand is in the early grip of the Omicron outbreak. Until now, BLVNZ Guide Dogs has been fortunate in avoiding any COVID-19 cases among staff. However, with the transmissibility of this new variant, we are preparing for the possibility and doing our best to keep all staff safe and healthy as we continue to care for and train our dogs.

The Waikato Times article:

Auckland guide-dogs-in-training get border exemption to walk Hamilton streets under alert level 2

Chloe Blommerde, 7 September 2021

They’ve come from locked-down Auckland to walk the streets of Hamilton – but Force, Floyd, Henry, Franklin, Easton and Ezra aren’t breaking COVID rules.

The future guide dogs would usually be trained in Auckland, but have a border exemption through Blind Low Vision NZ to carry on in Hamilton while COVID restrictions would otherwise stop their training north of the Bombays.

Three trainers and six guide dogs have been walking Hamilton’s empty streets since September 2, and will continue under alert level 2.

“It’s been good getting back on the street but, so far, it hasn’t been reality”, Blind Low Vision NZ Training Operations Manager, Wendy Mellberg Haecker said.

”We’re very excited about going into level 2 here. It will allow us to … train the dogs, not just out here on the street, but we will now be able to go into the shops, go into the busy centres where there are lots of people,” Mellberg Haecker told Stuff. “We can go and sit in a café – it is important that we have that chance to train our dogs to settle in public places.”

Consistency and continuity are key, she said.

“It’s really important we continue to get the dogs out daily and continue to put them through their paces.”

The six guide dogs – Force, Floyd, Henry, Franklin, Easton and Ezra – were selected from a pool of 18 pups because they were only a few weeks away from becoming qualified.

“We’re building confidence with them now. They know all the skills, but it’s more about building it into who they are,” Mellberg Haecker said.

“Twenty per cent of the dog’s day is spent guiding, the rest is socialising. It opens the world up for people on a social level.”

It costs up to $70,000 each year to raise one qualified dog. Up to 40 dogs are trained every year in New Zealand and there are about 100 on the puppy programme at various stages.

Trainers Lisa Walsh, Alana George and Justin Harden are training two dogs at a time– it’s a lot less than the six they started off with.

Normally, the dogs stay in kennels in Auckland and are trained Monday to Friday. In Hamilton, the dogs stay with volunteers at night, while the trainers stay in a hotel.

And it will continue that way for “as long as it takes” until Auckland moves down in alert levels.

“Depending on what happens in Auckland, if we can continue and complete the training in Hamilton, we will do that. Have them qualified and matched with their handlers.”

Mellberg Haecker felt very lucky to be able to continue the work.

“It’s been fun working in Hamilton, people are very intrigued.

“We have spent some time educating people what the rights of a guide dog and its trainer are.”

There are about 50 people around the country waiting on a guide dog.

Hamilton has a few vision impaired clients, also known as handlers, and a number of puppy raisers too.

At 9 weeks old, puppies go into ‘puppy raising homes’ with volunteers to learn good home behaviour and how to be a good citizen on the street. Training starts at 14 months old onsite in Manurewa. When they are about 2 years old they move in with their handler – or vision impaired client.

Initially, a trainer starts with six dogs, but as work progresses, dogs can be released from the programme due to sickness, or being easily distracted, for example. They must have the X-factor.

The hope is that a trainer ends up with at least four dogs each.

Trainers are in cadetship for three years. They learn how to train the dog, but also how handlers fit into the equation.

“The most important part for a trainer is understanding what the dog is communicating. It’s about reading the dog’s body language and helping him to understand what he will need to do for someone who is blind or has low vision,” Mellberg Haecker said.