Interview with Dr Sarah Evamy for International Guide Dog Day

Questions by Ariel Wee, Advisor, Diversity Inclusion and Belonging

3 guide dogs sat facing the camera

From left to right: Wayne, Olly and Stewart, three Labrador Retriever dogs playing together at the park

1. Hi Sarah, can tell you me a bit about yourself?

I’ve been working in higher education for over 30 years as an academic, in student support and now in professional development for staff. In my current role as a Professional Learning Designer in the Teaching Excellence Team within LITEC, our team creates and delivers professional development in learning and teaching which includes the goal of making education more accessible and equitable.

My colleagues and I work collaboratively with teaching and professional staff to help improve the learning experience of students.  We strive to model values of diversity, inclusion and belonging by including the principles of universal design, incorporating Indigenous perspectives, queering the curriculum, and creating safe learning environments for all learners.

2. How long have you been involved with Guide Dogs WA and what led you to this volunteer work?

I’ve been volunteering with Guide Dogs WA for almost 10 years now. I actually got into it after our beloved 15-year-old dog passed away; we were all devastated. I really wanted another dog but my partner wanted to wait. A friend who has been raising puppies that go through the Guide Dog Training program for a number of years suggested we give it a try. After attending some information sessions, we were presented with a beautiful puppy called Olly who in fact retired last year. From then on, we were hooked and have, to date, raised six puppies. The last dog that we raised was Bill who is now in his formal training phase.

3. Wow. Are you raising a puppy now?

We haven’t got one right now because we are going overseas this year but we will definitely raise another puppy in the near future. In the meantime, we do what is called Temporary Boarding which is when, for example, a Puppy Raiser might go on an overseas holiday and can’t take the puppy with them. We have recently had eight-month-old Wayne to stay a couple of times. We have also done Temporary Boarding for many more puppies over the years and always have dogs in the house.

4. What do you do as a Puppy Raiser?

As a Puppy Raiser, we take an eight-week-old puppy into our home until they are approximately 16 months old. We expose the puppy to the many different experiences and situations they may come across in their working life. This gets them used to a variety of environments before they go into their formal training.

Guide and Assistance Dogs, including those in training, have legal access to all the public places their handler goes. The only exclusions are operating theatres and certain zoo enclosures. As I work in the library, I would take our previous puppy, Bill, through the library, including giving him practise with the large revolving doors, the stairs, the lifts and we would walk past lots of students. Walking with Bill through crowds and getting him to settle in public places is really good exposure for him. Bill would come into the office and attend meetings with me, where he would practise settling under my desk. 

We also take all the dogs we’ve raised to the city and use buses, trains and ferries. It is important that we take them to restaurants and cafes, so they learn to settle. Our dogs have been to rugby matches, the opera, Gilbert and Sullivan performances, the ballet and all sorts of other events! They get lots of positive reinforcement for all the little things they do to settle down, so they learn to be at ease wherever their handler goes.

5. Does the puppy learn about physical boundaries or where not to go?

Yes. The puppies are discouraged from going into the kitchen so in our home, we start off with a baby gate across the kitchen, followed by a plank of wood and then a line across the floor. When they know that they’re not allowed in the kitchen, we remove the line. It’s really important for everyone in the house to be involved in raising the puppy because you have to be consistent with them.

6. Do you get professional help when raising puppies?

Yes, we do get lots of help with raising the puppies.  Amongst other opportunities for assistance, we have fortnightly one-on-one sessions with someone from Guide Dogs WA. These sessions help them monitor the puppy’s progress and give us the chance to ask any specific questions about the puppy’s development. We get lots of advice and support. There is also no cost to the volunteers.

All puppies, regardless of their career pathway, start off with a Puppy Raiser. Their career is determined later in their formal training where each dog is matched with the most appropriate type of work for them. This matching process is dependent on many aspects including their character and temperament. As a Puppy Raiser, it’s not until you have cared for a lot of dogs in a relatively short period of time that you really understand that they all have individual personalities – just like people. Each of the six dogs we have raised have had slightly different careers: Olly was a Guide Dog; Ella is still working as a Guide Dog; Stewart was an Ambassador Dog for Guide Dogs WA before he retired; Harvey went to live with a young person with autism; Onyx works with children; and Bill is currently in training.

7. Are there many types of assistance Dogs? How would you describe what they do?

The Western Australian government describes an assistance dog as a dog that is specially trained to assist a person to alleviate or manage the effect of that person’s disability or medical condition.

Yes, there are many types of assistance dogs including Guide Dogs, Hearing Assistance Dogs, Mobility Assistance Dogs, Diabetic Alert Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, Education Support Dogs, A.W.A.R.E (Assisting Wellbeing Ability Recovery & Empowerment) Dogs, Autism Assistance Dogs. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Assistance Dogs and Therapy Dogs.

 8. What is the best thing about your volunteer work?

It’s just so rewarding to see a dog develop from an eight-week-old ball of fluff to being a working dog making such a difference to someone’s independence. Just before Olly was placed with his handler, I was invited to have a blindfold walk – this is where you get to feel what it’s like for the dog you had raised to guide you. It was the most incredible experience. You put all your trust into that dog, knowing that they’re going to look out for you and keep you safe.

9. How do you deal with parting from the puppy when they leave for formal training?

You do get very attached to the dogs because they’re with you 24/7 but you know that they’re leaving to do something amazing to help someone in the community and that’s the reason why you take on the role as Puppy Raiser in the first place.

And you can still get updates. I got a little video when Bill wore the guiding harness for the first time. Next month, we are going to the graduation for Onyx, who works as a Therapy Dog for children with neurodiversity and children with other disabilities.

Also, in some circumstances, it is not practical for a handler to keep a Guide Dog when they retire. When Olly retired, we were contacted to see if we would like to look after him in his retirement.  It has been a joy to have him back! So Olly, who is now 9 years old, lives with us. We also have Stewart, the retired Guide Dogs WA Ambassador Dog I have mentioned earlier. It’s just such a lovely story because we’ve come full circle.

10. What are some tips for people when they meet an assistance animal and their handler?

First, whether a dog is in training or working, the focus needs to be on the handler, not on the dog. I know it’s really hard because a 3-month-old puppy is so cute but they have to get used to not being the centre of attention.  I’ve been told that one interaction or distraction for a working Guide Dog or dog in training can throw them off completely for the rest of the day.

Recently, I heard a story about a student who felt that people were interacting with them because of their assistance dog rather than them as a person. It got to the point where the student felt like they were invisible, so it is important to remember that the dog is an aide for the student, but not the centre of attention.

Second, a lot of people ask if the dog ever gets any down time or if they spend all their time working. Working dogs get plenty of opportunities to play and relax. Unlike many pets that get left at home for hours every day on their own, working dogs have far more time with their handlers and don’t get left for more than three hours at a time – and they are “inside” dogs and don’t get left outside in the weather.  They are very well cared for and are more often than not with someone so they always have company. I know that during COVID lockdowns pet dogs absolutely loved having their owners around but I don’t think cats were quite so happy about that!

3 guide dogs laid down on a bed together

From left to right: Olly, Bill and Stewart, three Labrador Retriever dogs sleeping on the same bed at home

If you have any questions or want more information