Seeing Eye Dogs could soon become a fixture in classrooms across Australia as a result of a life-changing new initiative.
Vision Australia’s Seeing Eye Dog Youth Program aims to give teenagers the option of using a canine mobility aid – which have previously mostly been allocated to adults – rather than a cane.
Six children from Victoria and Queensland, aged 13-17 and with different levels of vision impairment, recently completed a 12-month pilot program. A second course is planned for a new round of teens in 2023.
Melbourne’s Perle Peel is one of several participants in the first-year program who has since applied to the NDIS for funding for a Seeing Eye Dog.
The 16-year-old – whose vision will continue to diminish due to optic atrophy and nystagmus caused by an infantile stroke – said the opportunity it provided to trial being guided by a dog “changed everything” for her.
“I trusted the dog instantly,” she said.
“I didn’t have to focus so much on what the ground was doing, I could walk with my head up. With my cane, I walk with my head down.”
Her mum, Nina, added: “Just because the dog was beside her, her confidence increased.”
Perle Peel, pictured with Seeing Eye Dog-in-training Phil, is hoping to get her own canine mobility aid soon. Picture: Mark Stewart
Vision Australia orientation and mobility specialist Darren Moyle said, before the program, there had not been a consistent approach to providing Australian high school-aged students with Seeing Eye Dogs.
“We wanted to challenge (the notion) that you’re only able to take care of a dog when you’re 18,” he said.
Before they can join the program, teens are assessed on several criteria, including whether they can care for a dog and communicate their needs, and the dog’s.
Those selected for the program complete learning modules on orientation and mobility skills and have one-on-one sessions with specialists. They also attend two camps at Seeing Eye Dogs Australia headquarters in Melbourne, where they meet other vision-impaired teens and trial having a dog.
Mr Moyle said this meant being responsible for “feeding, grooming and toileting” their dogs, learning commands and how to settle dogs in places like in restaurants and at school, and experiencing walking with them in different environments.
At the end of the program, the teens determined whether they were ready to go on the waitlist for a dog, wait until they finished year 12 to get a dog, or keep using a cane.
Mr Moyle said most of the pilot program participants found a Seeing Eye Dog offered them “huge benefits for mobility, more confidence being able to walk at a faster pace and in different environments”, and companionship that provided “a level of security”.
He expected some of them would be matched with a dog within the coming months, if they were able to obtain NDIS funding to help cover the cost of about $51,000.
NDIS support allowed Perle to participate in the Seeing Eye Dog Youth Program in the first place – and she wholeheartedly recommended it to other vision-impaired children.
Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight 2022 liftout souvenir song book.
Fundraising from the upcoming Carols By Candlelight at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Christmas Eve supports the program, and several other Vision Australia initiatives. Tickets are now on sale at carols.visionaustralia.org
Have dog, will travel: How Sadie transformed this teen’s lifeThe story that sparked Carols by Candlelight
Get your Carols By Candlelight Songbook with the Sunday Herald Sun and Sunday Telegraph on December 18, and The Courier Mail on December 16.