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Lab eyes guide dog job


Kenzie the Labrador pup is a playful, blonde bundle of joy.

But when her guide dog harness is on, she knows that playtime is over and it’s time to start working.

New to Masterton, Kenzie was recently paired with family support centre manager Donna Laing, who is legally blind.

Mrs Laing, who has a degenerative vision disorder, had been on the waitlist for a furry companion for exactly a year before the match.

This was followed by two weeks of intense training together in Palmerston North, and one week in Wellington, before they returned to Masterton.

Last week was her first week back at work, with Kenzie in tow.

Kenzie the labrador guide dog. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Kenzie the labrador guide dog. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

And while a person’s first instinct may be to say hello to the pup, it’s important that when Kenzie is working, “she has to be ignored”.

“I know it’s really hard, but even making eye contact can make her look at you and lose concentration,” Mrs Laing said.

“Other people who have guide dogs have had people wave out to them from across the street.

“That kind of behaviour puts me at risk. I need her to keep me safe.

Part of Mrs Laing’s vision problem is depth perception, so Kenzie has been trained to stop at the top or bottom of steps or the kerb.

“She’ll never walk out onto a road without me.”

Because Mrs Laing’s sight is “very light-sensitive”, she has often struggled to adjust her eyes when walking into shops.

“I’m quite blind until my eyes settle.

“But now with Kenzie, I can walk into a shop and say to her, find the counter, and she will find the counter.

“Or find a chair, or find a family member or friend, find the others.”

Mrs Laing said it was such an improvement from having to stop at the shop’s entrance, “looking like a zombie because I can’t see”.

“It’s just incredible.

Kenzie has very specific voice commands in English for different tasks, and knows left and right better than her owner, Mrs Laing said.

“She’s so well-trained, so I have to keep up the training – by golly, every single thing you do has a reason.”

She said Kenzie’s training from the Blind Foundation had up to this point cost $30,000.

“I have to say, anyone who gives to the foundation, it is absolutely amazing and gives so much quality of life.

“The Blind Foundation has been absolutely amazing.

“Every day, my trainer comes over from Wellington and we have to do a walk somewhere different. She covertly follows behind, and gives feedback and advice.

Mrs Laing was set to graduate from the training programme this week, making Kenzie one of just two guide dogs in Wairarapa.

The other guide dog is based in Carterton and is at the same stage of development with its owner as Mrs Laing and Kenzie.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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