Take The Lead

Today is International Guide Dog day. This blog contains the speech I made to launch the Guide Dogs Australia “Take The Lead” campaign.

Picture the scene. I’m walking down Sydney’s George Street towards the Wynyard ramp with my Guide Dog Arrow. It’s the way I walk to catch the train most days. It’s a busy, crowded footpath, with pedestrians going both ways, and usually not walking to the left. It’s a noisy street – buses cars and motor bikes, music from shops, people yelling to be heard above the noise. Arrow and I are both concentrating hard to find our way through.

Just at the top of the Wynyard ramp someone – I’m guessing a homeless person or a busker – is sitting on the footpath. Sitting with them is their little pet dog. The first thing I know about the dog is when it jumps up, barks, and tries to attack Arrow for being in its space. Arrow is spooked, and jumps sideways. I’m scared silly and run into a few pedestrians. Footpath chaos ensues.

After the melee is sorted out, I talk to the dog owner, and explain what has occurred. He gets it straight away, and decides to “take the lead”.

He and his little dog are still there every day, but because he is taking the lead, Arrow and I can now walk past in safety. I usually wave as I go by- I’m not sure that Arrow is prepared to be quite that friendly.

This story – which happened three or four weeks ago – encapsulates the purpose of this campaign. In my story the little dog did not bite Arrow, and I was not crossing the road when the attack occurred. But the consequences of either of those things occurring are clear.

Guide Dogs Australia has today released alarming new research from a survey of 220 Guide Dog handlers across Australia. It reveals that 3 Guide Dogs a month were attacked by a pet dog while working during the past year.

1 in 4 Guide Dogs attacked sustained injuries, with two Guide Dogs retired as a result of the trauma. Off-lead pet dogs were the cause of most attacks.

There’s no doubt Australia is a nation of dog lovers, with 4.2 million pet dogs across the country. This also means 4.2 million potential safety hazards for Guide Dogs. That’s why I’m encouraging dog owners to take the lead to help create a safe community for everyone, especially Guide Dogs and their handlers.

A common inhibitor to my independence, and to me doing my job, is other dogs distracting Arrow from her job. This can make her anxious and put me at risk. Distraction is unexpected and it happens so fast. I can’t see the other dog, so I don’t know what we are dealing with and I can become scared for myself and Arrow. This is particularly true if I’m about to cross the road.

I’ve been in my role as a Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission for more than eight years. In fact, my appointment ends in July. In that time, I have had the privilege of taking the lead in advocating for same sex equality, removal of discrimination against people on the grounds of their race, the disadvantage experienced by people seeking asylum, and a fairer go for people with disabilities. Now I’m asking all Australians to take the lead so that I, and other Guide Dog handlers, and our Guide Dogs can do our jobs without distraction.

I’m proud to launch this campaign.

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