Thursday, January 28, 2021

Caring canine

Reading Time: 4 minutes

After three sleepless nights, it is a revelation for LP AYER to discover a retriever worth his weight in gold

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Seven hundred select guests out of the seven billion people on this planet were enjoying crisp cucumber sandwiches washed down with a variety of liquids at Beth’s backyard. The HRH (Her Royal Horde) of corgis were lolling around the high heels of the well-heeled, munching diamond-shaped jubilee cake baked for this special occasion.

The four-day feverish (the wisecracking old Duke felt a bit that way) fervour of the Queen’s gala event did not catch on Down Under. However a week later we, the loyal citizens of Oz, enjoyed a long weekend of beer and barbies to mark another tick on the chronological calendar of the gracious grand dame of Bucks. Even as the cushy corgis were re-recovering from their hangover, I was having a dog’s day thanks to my spouse, a staunch dog lover who once used to instantly panic at the sight of even a puny pooch.

During the long weekend we were delivered a golden retriever, Enzo, along with two bags – one containing his special food, and the other his gear including a mattress, blanket, purple jacket, ID card and wait for it – a 90-page manual of instructions with specific commands! Why all this fuss? Because Enzo is no ordinary dog.  One day he will be the eyes and even ears of helpless humans whose dark world he will light up, helping them live a near-normal life. Dogs like Enzo, according to the Royal Society for the Blind, cost around $20k to be trained from a playful pup to a purposeful guide dog. So it is no wonder the Society takes extraordinary steps in drafting a manual and setting up protocols in choosing trainers and carers for these canines. A number of good-hearted mums and dads volunteer their services.  My wife enrolled her and myself, overriding my hesitation, as volunteers.

The seachange in my wife’s cynophobia to dogs came about after we acquired a lovely Labrador who lived a contended 15 years, receiving cuddles and cookies in carton-loads from all the four in our family. After a sudden stroke and an agonising two weeks he had to be put down, much to our sadness. His departure left a big void, and to fill that my wife wanted another pet pooch.  As any dog owner would vouch, losing a pet dog is a heart-wrenching experience. We did not want to go down that path, but we still wanted to enjoy canine company. And the RSB seemed the best option as it offered three choices – full time trainee/carers for 12 months, or weekend carers, or occasional care givers when a regular one wants a break. We put our names for the third option and expected immediate enrolment. Not so easy.

We were asked every possible personal detail, fronted up for two interviews followed by police clearance, all of which took several weeks.  Strangely, we brought forth into the world two lovely children without any of this rigmarole.  Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to subject every couple to some tests to see if they are fit and proper persons to be parents.

Once on the volunteer list, we had a few training sessions with dogs. Having trained our black labby Fred (it is closer to truth that he trained us to his way), we thought it was a breeze to care for Enzo just for three nights. I was told he was well toilet-trained, and once he had relieved himself before bedtime, he would not bother us till the next morning. Being groomed as a guide dog, Enzo is to stay close to the human he is intended to serve, according to the manual. So I slept in a spare room with Enzo lying on the floor close by. Around midnight I felt his breath close to my face. Signal for a time out? On that biting cold night I took him to the backyard and kept repeating ‘busy busy’, the special command for him to do the job. But all that he did was busily sniff around as I stood shivering in my pyjamas. Back to bed, where it took me some time to get back to sleep. Two hours later, another nudge and another outing. It was action replay with no action. Tossing in bed to recapture my broken sleep, I wondered if we were wise in hosting him while my wife, who had volunteered my services, was blissfully sleeping.

Around 4am was another Enzo wake-up call. Third time lucky, I thought. But this outing was without any outcome, like the previous ones. The next two nights were no different. Tired after three sleepless nights and with bleary eyes, I packed his bags for his departure. As his full-time carer came to collect him I felt how close we had become in just three days, and was sad to see him go.  He had followed me like a shadow which, at times, was disconcerting. But Enzo, being programmed as a guide dog, is expected to follow every movement of his sightless human charge, to keep any harm out of their way. We humans place such a big burden on these creatures to care for the visually challenged, and they deserve every ounce of care and love lavished on them. Once this dawned on me, three sleepless nights were too small a price to pay for the experience!

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