David Monk can't see the lushness of the kiwifruit canopy at his Pyes Pa orchard, or the bumper crop, but he knows it has been a good year as he confidentially strolls under its shade.

Monk is accompanied by Charlie, a devoted four-and-a-half-year-old golden labrador who operates as Monk's eyes.

Monk, Tauranga pensioner with quite a knack for bowls, is completely blind. He lost his sight to acute glaucoma about 20 years ago.

"Not all forms of glaucoma [will] the person will go totally blind. I'm one of the unfortunate ones," he says.


"It's funny because people see me walking around the orchard and wonder if I can see, but I've been here 30 years. I know my way."

Guide dog Charlie leads David Monk alongside his kiwifruit orchard in Pyes Pa. Monk is blind and says guide dogs like Charlie have changed his life. Photo / Andrew Warner.
Guide dog Charlie leads David Monk alongside his kiwifruit orchard in Pyes Pa. Monk is blind and says guide dogs like Charlie have changed his life. Photo / Andrew Warner.

Down amongst Monk's golden kiwifruit, his hand runs along the vines. His other hand is guided faithfully by Charlie who gently pulls his harness along the orchard's perimeter.

For Monk, this is his happy place.

And life would be vastly different if it wasn't for Charlie, or the other two guide dogs Monk had before him, he says. Charlie's predecessors retired but this chilled canine still has several years to go. Monk places a hand on Charlie's head as the dog's tail begins to wag silently.

"He comes around the orchard with me," Monk says.

"I can tell him to go to the mailbox each day; he goes right there. But there's the company of having a guide dog as well. It makes life that much easier, that much more enjoyable."

Having a dog "does have quite an impact", Monk says.

From next week the Blind Foundation New Zealand launches its Red Puppy Appeal, a fundraising campaign aimed at collecting money to help cover the costs of breeding and training future guide dogs for visually-impaired people like Monk.

Monk was brought up on a farm and had a no-nonsense approach to life.

"You learn that you have to accept that when you go blind, you learn your limitations, put it that way. I could get by without one but it would be very difficult, and it would be lonely. You get very attached to your dog."

Away from the orchard, Monk has another happy place - Matua Bowling Club, where he and Charlie are much-loved regulars. It's likely a favourite spot for Charlie as well.

"He comes with me when I go to bowls," Monk says.

"He gets quite a fuss made over him."

But treats are out of the question - that's a strict no-no.

Monk explains that guide dogs like Charlie can become distracted from all of their years' training if they begin always thinking of food, something easily triggered by older ladies with spontaneous snacks.

"I'll be out, and people will say 'can I give him a bit of sausage roll?' and I have to say 'no'," Monks says.

Monks' bowling prowess is evidenced in a prized frame near his home's front entrance. Medals shine proudly next to photographs of Monk and wife Kathleen grinning ear-to-ear. The collection spans years of various sporting events, including the 2013 Blind World Lawn Bowls Championships where they won gold.

Blind bowls, much like blind life, is a team effort and Kathleen has been there every step of the way. She assists him as a director or guide; standing behind him, telling him the distance and general direction of the jack. The rest is up to Monk.

Monk is one of more than 30,000 New Zealanders affected by blindness or low vision. About 100 guide dogs are bred each year.

Guide dog volunteers Karin Mary (left) and Sue van Os walk Larry and Merv through Tauranga's CBD. Photo / Kiri Gillespie
Guide dog volunteers Karin Mary (left) and Sue van Os walk Larry and Merv through Tauranga's CBD. Photo / Kiri Gillespie

Blind Foundation's guide dog services operations manager Wendy Mellberg Haecker says preparing a puppy requires "a significant investment of both time and money, with training taking about two years and costs in the tens of thousands of dollars per dog, over a lifetime".

Public donations and sponsorships fully fund costs.

Training of puppies begins with a 12-month socialisation stage in which the puppy is paired with a volunteer after being weaned from its mother. After this, the pups return to the Blind Foundation to begin their formal training, which lasts about five months.

"Our guide dogs have a huge responsibility – they act as the eyes for their handler who is blind or has low vision – and have to be trained for all sorts of situations to support them in their everyday life," Haecker says.

It's early on a Thursday morning when Sue van Os and Karin Mary walk past each other on 2nd Ave. The two are friends through their volunteer work with guide dogs but practically ignore each other as they pass. At each woman's heal is a golden labrador cloaked in a red jacket eager to play with the other. The challenge for them is not to.

"These dogs get to do things that aren't normal for other dogs, like passing other dogs or walking past things without sniffing or saying 'hello'," van Os says.

Van Os holds Merv close as they pass Mary with Larry. Tails wag as the young dogs spot each other and there's some tugging on their harness, but they manage success, for now. Both dogs are about seven months old but have already learned crucial skills such as focus, and toilet training.

"If you are a blind person going to work, you don't want your dog stopping at every lamppost," van Os says.

Van Os and Mary are among about 12 "puppy raisers" in Tauranga. With Merv and Larry, the two women walk the length of 2nd and 1st Aves, navigating cars pulling into driveways, foot traffic and noisy construction work as they go. Surrounding the dogs in everyday scenarios such as this is critical, van Os says.

And it's not just the dogs who have to learn. Kind-hearted people who stop to pat the pooches, or try to introduce their dogs also need to learn.

"We get a lot of that. Most dog owners want their dogs to come and say 'hello', but if he thinks he can say 'hello' to everyone coming along, he's going to be pulling a blind person away all over the place. So we have to try to counter that," Sue says.

"Everything we do, we have to think 'how will this help a blind or visually impaired person?'."

Van Os and Mary regularly meet for such walks. Today's ended with a coffee at a popular cafe.

Guide dog volunteers Karin Mary (left) and Sue van Os with guide dogs Sonya (left), Larry, Nova and Merv. Photo / Andrew Warner
Guide dog volunteers Karin Mary (left) and Sue van Os with guide dogs Sonya (left), Larry, Nova and Merv. Photo / Andrew Warner

Underneath a dark wooden inside the cafe, Merv and Larry each belly shuffle towards the other, keen to socialise.

Mary gently pulls on Larry's lead to bring him back.

"I know you are excited that your best friend in the whole wide world is just over there, but you need to stay," she tells him.

Mary explains that this too is all part of training.

For Merv and Larry, they are best buds. But while the official guide dog red jacket is on, they are on duty and are learning to act accordingly. Playtime can come later.

Larry is Mary's fourth guide dog puppy. She admits as a puppy raiser you do get attached and as hard as it was to see them go eventually; "You know these dogs are going to change somebody's life".

She brings out her phone and shows off a photo on the home screen of a beautiful black labrador with a stick in its mouth.

"That's Randal," she says.

"My grandchildren aren't there [on the screensaver]. Neither are my children, but my first puppy is."

Randal was withdrawn from the guide dog training school for medical reasons. He is now an assistance dog helping a boy living with a brain injury, and the owners send Mary photos of Randal every birthday.

Van Os says most guide dog puppies, if withdrawn from the programme, still go on to make a difference in people's lives. That comforted her when it came time to hand them on.

"It's a bit like watching your children graduate. You know they are going on to the next phase of their lives," van Os says.

Van Os and Mary wind up their coffees and tell Merv and Larry it's time to go.

Out on the footpath, the young dogs try to play with each other again but are held back. They don't put up much of a fight as they walk away. They know they're on duty. Even if they're not yet sure what their future holds, van Os and Mary know each dog is destined to change lives.