You wouldn’t place your hands over the eyes of a taxi driver concentrating on the road ahead, or pat a surgeon on the back mid-way through an operation, as the consequences could be disastrous.
It would be just as irresponsible to distract a working Guide Dog.
Each day, members of the public place the safety of Guide Dog handlers at risk by patting, feeding and interacting with Guide Dogs, tasked with assisting those who are blind or vision impaired to independently get to where they need to go.
To address this issue, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT launched its public education campaign, Respect My Uniform, on International Guide Dog Day, calling on the community to resist patting or distracting working Guide Dogs.
Like other professionals, once a Guide Dog has its uniform on—its easily recognizable harness—it has a very important job to do.
Each highly skilled working dog has undergone almost two years of intensive training including how to navigate obstacles, travel on public transport, find landmarks such as bus-stops, and cross the road safely, before graduating.
The Respect My Uniform campaign follows the findings of a 2015 survey, in which 89 percent of Guide Dog handlers reported that their Guide Dog had been distracted by members of the public in the past 12 months.
It aims to educate the community 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.
“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,” CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Dr. Graeme White said.
“Any distraction to a working Guide Dog can put its handler’s safety at risk. If a Guide Dog is distracted while guiding its handler across the road, the consequences could be tragic,” he said.
“If 89 percent of taxi drivers were distracted while driving, there would be national outrage.”
For Guide Dog handler and Australia’s Got Talent finalist, Matt McLaren, the incidence of members of the public attempting to distract his Guide Dog, Stamford, is a daily occurrence.
Matt, who has been blind since birth, received Stamford about eight years ago. With the amount of travel required for the talented musician to get to gigs, having a Guide Dog has allowed him to maintain an independent, busy life and a thriving career.
“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,” he said.
However, the public sometimes restrict his ability to move through different environments. “People will try to talk to Stamford while I am walking, make clicking noises, pat him while I move past them and try to make eye contact with him,” Matt said.
He said although most members of the community know they should not pat a Guide Dog in harness, many will often say, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this,” as they proceed to pat Stamford.
“The problem is people often don’t perceive the consequences of their actions.”
At a recent gig, Matt was carrying a keyboard into a venue and a member of the public wanted to play with his Guide Dog. “There was a staircase straight ahead, but as Stamford was not on the ball, I walked straight into it,” he said.
“I want the public to understand that distracting a working Guide Dog reduces its capacity to do what it has been trained to do, potentially putting my safety at risk. It can also be time consuming as I often need to refocus Stamford after he has been distracted before moving on.”
It is important for the community to understand that Guide Dogs in harnesses are on duty, whether they are physically guiding a person or sitting at their feet.
Dr. White said in rare serious cases, ongoing distraction can result in the premature retirement of a Guide Dog, which costs more than $35,000 to breed, raise and train.
“This is why it is so important that people understand they should not feed, pat or otherwise distract a working Guide Dog,” he said.
“Of course once the harness comes off, and with the handler’s consent, you can pat and interact with a Guide Dog.”
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT will launch a video about appropriate behavior around Guide Dogs on International Guide Dog Day and is also calling on the community to pledge to not distract Guide Dogs through a change.org petition.
Join the conversation with hashtag, #RespectMyUniform on Facebook at facebook/guidedogsnswact or Twitter @guidedogsnswact.