If you see a shiny coated black Labrador looking very professional in a harness, weaving her way through the streets of Whanganui, then you may be looking at the city’s newest (and only) working guide dog team.
Julz, a guide dog for the blind, has teamed up with Sarah Fallen, who is legally blind. It took 15 months for Fallen to learn walking routes with her cane before she could work with a guide dog. She put her name forward and then was assessed.
Julz is a very docile and well-mannered guide dog that has been matched to a very fun and bubbly woman who is overjoyed to now have Julz in her life.
Julz’s new handler, Sarah Fallen, had a goal to improve her fitness and to accomplish independent mobility with a guide dog by her side. She has achieved that goal through hard work and determination and the support of some very special friends along the way.
“We trained together for two weeks, then we graduated,” said Fallen. We have been together for about six weeks now. We’re still going through teething issues. I’ve been told this can take up to 12 months until we actually connect together.
“When Julz packs a tantrum, we could be crossing an intersection at the traffic lights. Halfway across she won’t move. I have to try and pull her across, but she won’t move.
“I get a few people who ask if they can come and pat her, which is good – because they have to ask before they can approach her. I let her handle down, and just hold the lead, so she’s not working. Once I hold that handle, we’re in work mode,” she said.
Fallen was born in Whanganui and has been back six years after spending 20 years in Australia and having five children, and eight grandchildren. She decided to have a new chapter in her life in Whanganui after her mother passed away.
Life has been better for her in Whanganui. “I’ve made achievements, such as getting a guide dog, whereas I couldn’t do that in Australia,” she said. “I didn’t have the time, because I had the kids.
“I have a better social life here and lots of friends. I play blind indoor bowls, and will attempt to play outdoor bowls over the summer holidays,” she said.
Glenis Couling is Fallen’s best friend. Instead of picking up Fallen, they meet at a destination, and she supports and encourages Fallen. “I thought it was such a great thing for her to do, getting a guide dog,” said Couling.
“She had to go through long training, learning where she needed to go – the doctor, Trafalgar Square, Farmers, the chemist. Now she can go to all those places. Before she had to depend on me, now I feel redundant, which is a good thing,” she said.
With the training, every command and how to direct, how to do crossings, and going straight to the kerb, if Sarah decides to go left, she has to turn her body left. Or she can do a hand wave and say “find left” or “find a seat”. She was quite drained for the two weeks of training with Julz. Couling said it can take longer than two weeks, but Sarah was a fast learner.
“Having a guide dog makes you more visible – it feels like a different world” said Fallen. “Where you’ve got a blind cane, people look at you differently, like you’ve got some sort of disease. Now I’ve got Julz, everyone approaches me in a warm, helpful way, it’s quite overwhelming.
“It’s been a game changer for me, definitely for the better, I feel better in myself, and my confidence has gone way up. Over the years I’ve lost a fair bit of weight to get to where I am now, walking all the routes and, prior to that, exercising on a treadmill, which I’ve got rid of now,” she said.
Couling thinks Fallen is quite courageous. “She went out of her ‘safety zone’, that was a big thing,” she said.
Julz in a taxi
Fallen carries her ID with her in case people don’t let her into their premises. She is legally allowed to have a dog in a shop, it can go anywhere with her, even in a taxi or bus.
“In a taxi, they put the front seat back so Julz can sit in front of me, underneath the dashboard,” said Fallen. “We’ve done it a couple of times now, Julz loves it. Having Julz opens up my horizons, it’s unbelievable, it changes your whole world.”
She also enjoys the companionship Julz offers in the home and feels a lot more secure knowing she is there by her side. She has been sleeping better ever since Julz arrived, and her fitness levels are certainly improving too.
Julz is a very conscientious worker and takes her job very seriously. If she feels she has made a mistake, no one takes it more seriously than Julz does. Thankfully she has a very kind, patient and appreciative handler who can help support her to reach her fullest potential the same way that Julz supports her new mum to reach her fullest potential.
After a long walk, Julz also appreciates a nap while her mum plays indoor bowls, or at her weekly craft groups. She also loves the trolley load of toys she has in her house and the games her mum plays with her in the yard.
Julz thinks this new life in Whanganui will suit her pretty well - she has certainly landed on her paws there.