Dogs at work – training a guide dog team



As well as being loyal companions, those playful puppies can also be trained to become incredibly useful working dogs. They assist people who have vision and hearing impairments, and those with autism or limited mobility. Police, drug detecting and disaster recovery teams also rely on the exceptional work of service dogs.

Based in Tauranga, Su Young Bae is the Bay of Plenty guide dog mobility instructor for the Blind Foundation Guide Dog Services. Her role is to train new guide dog teams – the handler and their dog – as well as provide ongoing assistance to the handler and monitor the health and wellbeing of the guide dog. She looks after 25 guide dog teams in the Bay, including those as far north as Coromandel and south to Gisborne. Nine instructors cover approximately 220 teams throughout the country.

Match-making a team

Guide Dogs do not suit every blind or vision impaired person, and when Su Young meets with new applicants, she needs to know their lifestyle and personality are likely to suit becoming a handler.

“The guide dog needs a job to do, they should have sufficient routes and destinations, and the handler needs to be capable to direct, support and control the dog, and have the kind of lifestyle that would suit a working dog. The handler also needs to be able to provide a positive home environment and maintain the dog’s wellbeing physically and emotionally.” she says.

She meets regularly with the other regional instructors to match new handler applicants with appropriate dogs. As well as handler lifestyle, instructors also take into account the dog’s temperament and personality, their speed and energy levels. Getting the right match is crucial, she says.

Su Young then begins a 3-4 week intensive training programme with the new team covering everything from grooming, feeding, toileting, playing, how to travel, how to introduce to other dogs, as well as guide working.

“They work at least twice a day so it’s quite intensive. There is a lot of new information for the handler to take in. They use new muscles and have to learn new words and commands to train their guide dog apart from building a good relationship.”

The Foundation has its own guide dog breeding programme, raising mainly Labrador and/or Retriever pups which are taken in by volunteer ‘puppy walkers’ at 8 weeks old. Wearing red coats, the pups go everywhere with the puppy walker and learn about house manners and generally how to live with people, and have experiences in various environments. At around 18 months they return to the Guide Dog centre in Auckland for 20 weeks’ advanced training.

Dream job worth the long wait

Su Young arrived in Tauranga in 2014 – delighted to finally be working in her dream role as a guide dog instructor. Incredibly, she was able to keep that dream alive despite many years of patiently waiting for a way in.

Originally an IT specialist, Su Young, from Korea, had always loved animals, but until 1995 had never heard of guide dogs. That changed in a heartbeat when she saw a poster advertising for puppy walkers and knew that training service dogs was her calling. She rang the company and asked for a job, but they offered her a web developer position instead. She stuck with her current role and contacted the company every year to check for available trainer positions. No joy.

Eight years later, in 2003, she was finally offered a new position – as manager of marketing and planning at Guide Dog school in Korea. While it wasn’t the role she was after, the company made her a deal – “work for us for two years and we’ll make you a trainer”. She did, and after this time was sent to Oregon, US, to train for four months with Guide Dogs for the Blind. Ten years after seeing that poster, her enthusiasm had never waned.

“I absolutely loved the training and was so ready to go back home and show my new skills to the trainers.”

Frustratingly, Su Young’s dream was still held at arm’s length. Her Korean manager called her home to manage the hearing dog department. This was a totally different scenario and not what she had trained for. Neither was it the hands-on training role she was so desperate for, and after one year as manager she quit the company altogether. She returned to the US to begin a Masters’ degree programme for guide dog instructors, making her qualified to work as an instructor anywhere in the world. After four years in the US she returned home for a year before relocating to Tauranga.

“I love animals but for me it’s so much more than that. I like to solve problems for people. How can I teach this dog, or how can I fix this behavioural problem – I enjoy the challenge of finding a solution. It’s so rewarding when clients say to me their life is so much easier with their guide dog.”

Words + Image Millie Freeman