Guide dog Perdi lying by a dam

International Guide Dog Dog Day: A Handler’s Journey

International Guide Dog Day is an important day in celebrating the many dogs across the world that help their handlers. Guide Dogs are incredibly intelligent and loyal animals that have the ability to save lives and give people independence. They are also important mobility aids for those who need them. 

This International Guide Dog Day, Guide Dogs Australia is encouraging people to better understand the rights, etiquettes and challenges that Guide Dog Handlers face. 

For handler Nikki Drake, challenges have come in many forms. She’s been abused for telling members of the public that they cannot touch or distract her Guide Dog Labrador, Perdi. She’s also been refused entry into ride shares and even been told to sit out in the cold because she has a dog.

Despite the challenges, Nikki has shared her experience with Perdi and the remarkable ways that Perdi has helped change her life for the better. 

Nikki with her Guide dog Perdi at the beach

Life before a Guide Dog 

Before Nikki Drake became a Guide Dog handler, her life was much quieter. She became blind in 2015 and while she had learned to use a cane to get around, there were still activities that she loved, like walking on the beach, that were out of reach.

Chatting to a social worker, she explained how isolated she was feeling when she was told to give Guide Dogs Australia a call. 

“My first response was, ;I am not ready for a Guide Dog,’” she recalls. “However, I gave them a call and within a couple of days there were two amazing, kind, caring and loving members from Guide Dogs Victoria there to help me and my family through the new life I will be living.” 

The team showed Nikki how great her life could be with a companion by her side, and Nikki decided to go ahead and get paired up with a dog. 

Matching with the perfect Guide Dog 

“The process of being matched with a Guide Dog is remarkable. There are a few information sessions you can attend. They help to get an understanding of what is going to happen, to make sure you are aware and ready,” Nikki explains. 

“A team member will go through the application, it is very in depth. The things they look at are your lifestyle, living arrangements, whether that is in a city or regional living, transport services you may use, other pets, interests, walking speed etc. to find you the perfect match. 

“I have learnt these questions also relate back to the dog. For example, some dogs may thrive in a city environment, where some prefer the quieter lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  It is remarkable, but I found my pawfect match. 

“The first time I met my guide dog Perdi, I will never forget. I knew then I had made the right decision, and she will change my life for the better. Our first walk was a (nervous) dream come true. I knew then she was my perfect match, it just felt right.” 

Life with Perdi the Guide Dog 

“When Perdi came into my life it changed so much,” says Nikki.

“I am feeling more confident and challenging myself and her, to visit new places I know I never would have been able to go without her by my side. 

“She brings a sense of security, confidence and is right by my side if I need her, especially when anxiety overcomes me. All she has to do is give me a little head rest, look, smile and she is telling me, mum we have, this we can do it.” 

Together, the pair have made lifelong memories. 

“One that stands out was our first night walk alone. I haven’t done it since my vision loss, but the feeling was incredible,” says Nikki. 

“Just me and her walking in the dark, trusting her completely, the damp air on my face, the quietness and stillness at night, I hadn’t experienced that in so many years. 

“My heart was racing, anxiety high but I had my girl beside me and she done a magnificent job. 

“I came home feeling proud, accomplished, and alive again. 

“I can go out alone at night now that I have my wonderful Guide Dog beside me. This memory reminds me of how far I have come. Most people take this for granted, it’s the little things.” 

Nikki’s first Labrador 

Perdi has given Nikki freedom to do the things she loves

Dogs have always been a huge part of Nikki’s life. “I grew up with Corgis and then moved onto Cocker  Spaniels. But a Labrador! No. However, what an eye opener it has been. 

“They are food obsessed; I had heard stories over the years working in the pet industry in wholesale, but I thought they are just like all dogs. 

“It still amazes me how they get the kibble down so quickly. 

“But I have found they are also so loyal, smart, kind, playful, cuddling, beautiful dogs and always want to be near you to keep you safe.” 

Never a dull moment

Miss Perdi has a lot of personality,” says Nikki. “There is never a dull moment with her, she can be very entertaining. 

“Every morning she has this cute way of saying I’m awake. She lets out this beautiful, dramatic, very vocal yawn. It makes me smile every morning.  She is a loveable, kind, smart, playful, loyal and not to mention absolutely beautiful dog.  

The other day I was upset and crying and she came over and snuggled into me. It melts my heart thinking of it. But as soon as her harness is put on she knows it’s time to work, like a switch to work mode.

“Then as soon as we get home and the harness is off, she is back to playing with her sisters and being a dog.” 

Navigating the world together 

At first, the idea of putting complete trust into an animal was tough for Nikki. 

“To me all my dogs have been pets, part of the family, never a working dog,” she says. “But trust came so easy and I already knew how smart she was. 

“It was the little things, such as, I had to visit a family member in hospital and found the way in, but I got disorientated finding my way out, but Perdi knew the way. This had happened so often, and it still amazes me. “So many occasions she has saved me from obstacles, signs, chairs, just to name a few, and she gained my trust very quickly. 

“I have found that when we are in familiar surroundings, we are both confident, but when we are in new surroundings, I can feel the concentration and the ‘do a good job’ drive in her.
“Our pace is a little slower as Perdi is on the lookout for any obstacles or commands I may give her. I guess they are like us humans in any new environment, proceeding carefully.” 

A word of advice 

“I have encountered many challenging situations from rideshare refusals, to being told to sit outside in the cold due to “having a dog”.

The hardest part of being a Handler is people trying to pat or get the dog’s attention,” she explains. “Our dogs are working and any distraction can cause our dog to lose focus. They are super cute but they are doing a job. Please understand we are just trying to do our daily activities. 

“Most Handlers are happy to chat and if the situation is ok let you pat them out of harness. 

“Perdi gets super excited so sometimes I will say no. But if we are sitting there waiting for the bus, train etc we may say ok. If we do say no, please don’t abuse us. I have had that in the past. 

“Our dog may have missed a command or had a massive working day. And a pat from a stranger is a distraction so we will allow it if it is ok, but please talk to us not our beautiful aids. 

“Another challenge we all face and I am sure other dog owners have is dogs off lead, or when someone is walking past with their dog on a lead letting their dog approach Perdi. 

“Our dogs love to socialise too but when in harness please give us plenty of space as we may trip on your dog or our Guide Dog may get distracted. 

“A last note I do have to say is there is all different vision loss. I, for example, have less than 5% tunnel vision. So if you do see a Guide Dog Handler out and about looking a little overwhelmed, please just ask if we need help. 

“It doesn’t happen very often but it can help us a great deal.  

“We are people just like you so please chat to us and not to our Guide Dogs.” 

Five top tips this International Guide Dog Day: 

Talk to the Handler
If in doubt always ask a person using a Guide Dog first if they need help, and announce you’re there. Using your voice is always better than using your hands. 

Give them access 

Guide Dogs in harness can go absolutely anywhere their Handler can go, it’s a legal right. 

Don’t distract the dog 

Guide Dogs are highly trained, but they are dogs at the end of the day so avoiding feeding or distracting them so they can focus on their skilled work. 

Give them space 

Physical space is very important, so avoid touching a Handler or a dog, or letting your own dog greet them, so they can work safely together. 

Further your education 

Access resources, ask someone you know with blindness or low vision about their experience, or see if you can do formal training for work, then pass that knowledge on. 

For more information, visit Guide Dogs Australia.

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