Eleni has made history, becoming the first person in Australia to complete training with a Seeing Eye Dog via Zoom.
Eleni was matched with Laura, her first Seeing Eye Dog, earlier this year. In March, she was due to spend two weeks at Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs Melbourne headquarters to complete her training.
Two days into that training, Eleni was forced to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic – without Laura.
Now 54, Eleni having been legally blind since birth, however only diagnosed in her mid-30s, wanted a Seeing Eye Dog to help her become more active and independent.
“In the first few years of being diagnosed, I didn’t mind having the white cane or the darkened glasses, but eventually it became uncomfortable. People would say things like, ‘Oh, she’s blind’ or ‘Look at the blind lady’. Occasionally people would ask me if I needed help in a very loud voice. I may be blind but I’m not deaf,” Eleni said.
“After a brief pause with using the cane it became a permanent fixture after some close calls. I feel uncomfortable being marginalised and put my name down on the Seeing Eye Dogs waiting list,” she said.
Eleni was committed to having Laura with her and suggested the idea of training via Zoom.
Together at last
Laura was flown to Queensland and reunited by Eleni. The pair then embarked on four weeks of intensive training via Zoom. A Disability Support Worker of Eleni’s would film the pair, with expert Seeing Eye Dog instructors providing guidance from the other end of the Zoom call.
Eleni is now a graduated Seeing Eye Dog handler and enjoying Laura by her side.
“The four weeks of training were incredibly intense and full on. It started out as a couple of hours a day, and then shifted to morning and afternoon sessions for six days a week,” Eleni said.
“We’re working together every day and seeing improvements all the time. One of the first things I noticed is that now I look up and can see the world, previously I would need to keep my eyes on the ground, but now I can feel everything through Laura’s harness.”
A benefit for others
Lester Chraim, Seeing Eye Dogs client services manager, said Eleni’s graduation was a significant achievement for everyone involved.
“Seeing Eye Dogs make a huge difference in the lives of people who are blind or have low vision. Eleni was determined not to have to wait to have Laura with her and we’re glad they’re now working together,” Lester said.
“Training a handler and a dog has never been done like this before and we’re very excited that Eleni and Laura have shown it can be done. It certainly won’t replace all of face to face training, but it’s another option that will allow us to match and train even more people across Australia with a Seeing Eye Dog.”
Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs are delivering group Telehealth sessions of up to six for Dog Guide Handlers. Some of the topics include enrichment, travelling with your Dog Guide in airports, on buses and trains, information on social distancing and working with your Seeing Eye Dog during COVID-19, Dog Guide health and the NDIS. If you’re currently working with a Dog Guide and are interested, please reach out to [email protected] to register your interest!