herald

Monday 25 September 2017

For my eyes only

Modern guide dogs are not all labradors, which can cause new problems for their owners

Owner: John Carroll from Raheny

Animal: Vico, his three-year-old labradoodle guide dog

Background: Vico's harness displays a sign reminding people that he is a working animal

A Guide Dog has a short working life: a typical animal is two years old by the time he's trained, and retires at 10. Most dogs are still fit and active at 10 years of age, but it's considered fair that they're given a long retirement.

John used to have a classic breed of guide dog

-- a yellow Labrador, called Bree. When Bree retired, she was adopted by another family and went on to have a "second life" as a pet before eventually passing away at the age of 16.

Bree had been a wonderful assistant and she was a tough act to follow. In some ways, it was helpful that Vico turned out to be a different breed of dog.

Vico is a good example of a 21st-century guide dog. Instead of using pedigree animals, breeders have started to use a mix, aiming to produce working dogs that are as fit, healthy and effective as possible.



tousled

Vico is a labradoodle, which is a mix between a Labrador and a standard poodle. He resembles a small Irish wolfhound, with a big craggy head and a tousled, wiry coat.

There are several advantages to the cross-breed. Poodles have a different type of intelligence to Labradors, and Vico thinks ahead: he will spot someone 50m ahead on the pavement and plan a walking route in advance.

Poodles are also known as a low-shed breed. Labradors tend to moult continuously and, when he owned Bree, John couldn't wear black because of the yellow hair. Vico doesn't moult nearly as much. John's son, Hayden, has asthma, but he has no problem being around Vico.

There's only one complication with Vico's breed: he doesn't look like a typical guide dog. People sometimes try to talk to him, not realising that he's a working animal. Vico accompanies John on a busy daily routine: dropping the children to school, then heading into his office in Dublin City Centre by DART. He sits under John's desk during the day, going out for a walk at lunchtime around Grafton Street and St Stephen's Green before heading home in the evening.

When he has his harness on, he is "on duty" and it's important that he isn't distracted. If someone comes up and pets Vico, it's as if someone has stepped into John's path and physically stopped him.

John doesn't mind if people ask if they can pet Vico, if he's sitting down, but when he was in busy places, tourists especially would come up and start talking to Vico, not realising that he had a job to do.

John used to have to politely ask people not to do this, but now he has a new solution: a sign attached to Vico's harness.

Vico can't talk, but his sign says it loud and clear: "Please don't distract me: I'm working."

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