8 May 2024

By Hannah Wilcox 

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT opened up the doors of its flagship office in St Leonards for a one day celebration on April 24.

Set up as a ‘pup-up’ cafe, complete with cupcakes, coffee and puppies (!), International Guide Dogs Day acts as an important reminder of how handlers and their companions are still unable to freely navigate within our communities.

Around 50 people turned up to show their support for the organisation across three sessions running from 9am to 10am, 11am to 12pm, and 1pm to 2pm. 

North Sydney Sun sat down with handler and Connection Specialist Ingrid Barnes to chat about this year’s theme: Wherever you can go, Guide Dogs can go too.

“So today, of course, is International Guide Dogs Day. It’s a really multi-layered occasion,” the 30-year-old said.

“So on one level, we’re absolutely celebrating these fantastic guide dogs and all the brilliant work they do as mobility aids for hundreds and hundreds of people living with low vision and blindness. It’s also a brilliant day for activism and raising awareness generally for guide dogs, their access rights in particular, as well as guide dog etiquette.”

She added: “Today is also really special because we’re really focusing on the campaign of wherever you can go, the guide dog can go to. Because, of course, guide dogs are allowed to access everywhere.”

“That includes restaurants, cafes and hotels – rideshares in particular are our main focus.”

“So whether that’s a taxi, an uber or any other ride share service, they absolutely have rights to be in that car with their handler and that’s something that is still an area of contention with some drivers,” Barnes continued.

“So we’re all about educating today.”

She recalled one of the worst experiences she had was en route to a special event at the Opera House.

“I was all glammed up and ready to go. My taxi pulled up, I stepped out my front gate with Banner and the driver didn’t say hello,” Barnes said.

“He just goes, ‘oh, who’s gonna clean my taxi after your filthy dog’s been in here?’”

This is very common, Barnes added, with many drivers unhappy about letting a dog inside their vehicle.

“Sometimes they just drive off. Sometimes they make gestures at you and sneer at you.”

“You get treated like absolute garbage just because your mobility aid has fur.”

Guide Dogs is currently having conversations with Uber and 13 Cabs about making rideshare more accessible including instating regulatory training for drivers and taking more accountability. 

“We’re also following up because one of the hardest things that we find as guide dog handlers particularly, is that it is so hard to actually report an incident,” she noted.

“And for a blind person or someone with limited vision, it’s so hard.”

“I also screenshot these rides whenever I book anything because we, as handlers, expect refusal going in,” Barnes added.

“ I don’t expect them to be nice and it’s a surprise when they are.”

Handlers are legally allowed to enter any public space with their guide dogs, with finable offences in place for those who refuse entry.

“People can be difficult. They don’t want to be educated or they just want to not have a dog in their space. So I’ve had quite a few refusals from cafes to fine dining,” Barnes said. 

“We all carry little police cards that have the New South Wales police logo and all the fines on it that we can show to people. So [I tell them], this is the fine I’m willing to charge you with if you refuse me.”

“I hate doing that part. It usually gets you in the door, but it’s still an awful experience to go through,” she added.

Barnes said she will always notify venues ahead of time that she will be with the company of a guide dog as a courtesy. 

She has a degenerative genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa and was paired with her now six-year-old labrador, Banner, in June 2019.

“It’s recessive, so I’m the only one in my family who has it,” she added.

“It came sort of out of nowhere, and essentially, it’s losing vision over time like a shrinking tunnel. So I’ve got about four degrees of visual field left, right in the centre of my vision.”

“No peripherals above, below, side to side.”

The tiny four degree dot of vision she has currently is expected to disappear in the next ten years.

“I’ll hopefully be left with some light and shadow awareness – so I definitely need the support of a beautiful guide dog,” she said.

Prospective handlers are required to be proficient cane users before undergoing assessment on whether they are suited for a guide dog, in consideration of the animal’s needs and limitations. 

Banner is a labrador and was only 18 months old when he started working with Barnes.

“We’ve almost now been together for five years. He is absolutely life changing,” she said.

Banner is named after Marvel superhero Bruce Banner, with his twelve brothers and sisters following suit with names such as Tony Stark, Thor, Captain America, Hela and Loki. 

“Which is great, because I’m a massive nerd and a cosplayer,” Barnes laughed.

“He really lives up to his name .. He’s just a real superhero for me.”

Guide dogs are matched to their handlers based on their schedules, capabilities and requirements.

Barnes continued: “So they look at me and they go: how fast does she walk? What sort of places does she go? What public transport does she need to be able to catch? How variable is her schedule? And then they match the dog to me.”

“They figured that because my schedule was so varied, Banner’s adept skill set is translatable to any given environment.”

Banner has even accompanied Barnes on 32 domestic flights so far and went off to London in the days following this interview.

The Sun spoke to a trainer at the event who explained that between 16 months to two years old is roughly when the guide dogs are paired up with their handlers.

Barnes added this is because they have been so well trained up to that point but are also still really malleable in the sense that they can now relearn those skills with their new handler.

“For those next four weeks, you have to put your whole life on hold. No work, nothing. You have to spend every single day working with a guide dog mobility instructor,” she said.

“In that first month or so when you’re training with the dog, no one else in your household is allowed to pet them, feed them or anything.”

“It’s all about making them fall in love with you and have that bond – you have to be their number one human.”

Barnes urged members of the public not to go up to handlers and their companions in public as it can often be an invasive and confrontational experience. 

“The more we can talk to them and pass on this information, the better, because then [people] can chat to each other and learn.”

“There’s so much work to be done. I guess I’d be out of the job if I didn’t have that work to do,” she joked.

“[People should remind themselves] that ‘I can’t touch a working guide dog in harness, and I should leave them alone, and I should offer that person a seat on the bus or the train or whatever.’”

Barnes added: “We’re not dissing you for not knowing, but would you mind stepping up to the plate, learning something new and chatting to each other about it? 

“That’s the main thing. Keeping the conversation going.”