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As the clock struck midnight this past New Year’s Eve, the Bhandari family in Sydney celebrated in a rather unique way: taking care of six beautiful, healthy puppies born just the night before.
These were no ordinary puppies.
“They’re destined for greatness, to become the ‘eyes’ of Australians with low vision and blindness as their guide dogs,” Vik Bhandari told Indian Link cheerfully.
Vik and his family are volunteers of Guide Dogs Australia, who combine their love for animals with important community service.
“It’s a really rewarding experience, helping the puppies get a great start to life. We do it as seva, giving back to the community,” he explained.
It all started back in 2003 when the Bhandaris found themselves in a situation often faced by temporary visa holders in Australia. They wanted to adopt a pet but weren’t sure about their long term situation in the country.
That’s when a friend turned them to Guide Dogs Australia.
“At first we signed up to be puppy raisers, to take care of a puppy from 8 weeks to 14 months old,” Vik said. “They become a part of the family. You teach them basic skills, help them establish a domestic routine, and take them once a week for training sessions.”
In fact, it’s an intensive five-month process to turn a cute puppy into a fully trained guide dog. The trainers work with the pups to build their confidence, teach them to navigate streets, follow commands, and acquire complex skills for their new job. Puppies who don’t complete the program are diverted to other ‘career’ paths such as becoming therapy dogs in juvenile courts, hospitals, and aged care.
In the last four and a half years, the Bhandaris have completed the puppy raising program with two dogs.
“It’s a really rigorous program to become a guide dog. Only 50 per cent of the dogs pass the process. One of our dogs did,” Vik said proudly (The family even attended her ‘graduation ceremony’.)
Last year, the family signed up for Guide Dogs’ home whelping and rearing program, assisting Lottie as she gave birth to the organisation’s first litter of 2021. Across the last two months, the Bhandaris had a great time raising the adorable Kato, Kenny, Kofi, Bevie, Heaven, and Dorrit.
“Lottie didn’t quite take to it at first, so we had to be pretty hands-on in the early weeks. By week 3, though, it was quite lovely, said Vik. “It was tough saying goodbye to them when they eventually went back to Guide Dogs.”
According to Karen Hayter, NSW Puppy Development Manager at Guide Dogs Australia, the role of volunteers like Vik is enormous.
“Guide Dogs relies heavily on the community to help fund this important work, and volunteer Puppy Raisers contribute significantly by giving their time and effort,” she explained. “With each Guide Dog taking $50,000 to breed, raise and train, the role of a Puppy Raiser is immeasurable!”
She also addressed the ethical considerations of breeding, a common concern for animal lovers.
“The health and welfare of pups and dogs is priority at Guide Dogs. This is why Guide Dog NSW/ACT created its own breeding program in 2011 to assist with the increased demand,” Karen said. “The dogs in our breeding program and all of their puppies are cared for by our team of experts, including full-time veterinarians, kennel staff, neonatal and breeding specialists, consulting allied professionals, and volunteers.”
Vik considers this kind of volunteer work to be a great opportunity for animal lovers on a temporary visa, individuals who work from home, and families who would like a ‘test run’ before making a lifelong commitment to a pet.
“Guide Dogs really supports you through the process. They help with most of the equipment you’d need at home, like dog food, collars, grooming equipment, and basic medicines. They also cover all veterinary costs through their approved vets,” he confirmed.
Since New Year’s Eve, his videos of the puppies have brought smiles to many friends and family online. On Facebook groups, too, comments have flooded in for the playful tykes.
“These puppies are just delightful and they will go on to do a fabulous job enhancing someone’s life,” wrote one user.
2020 may have been a difficult year for most, but it’s always great to hear lockdown endeavours such as these that bring a smile to the lips of many.
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