Pippin provides stress relief for those battling COVID-19

21 April 2020

At Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs, we rely on our amazing volunteer carers to help us raise and train Seeing Eye Dogs.

Across Australia, these carers come from all walks of life and from time to time that means our dogs might take on a different, albeit temporary, role outside of supporting people who are blind or have low vision.

We recently learned that a Seeing Eye Dogs foster carers, Charles Alpren, is the Victorian Department of Health and Human Resources’ Principal Epidemiologist and is has a key role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charles has been foster caring for Pippin, a Seeing Eye Dog in training, since December 2019.

Charles spoke with us about how Pippin has inadvertently taken on the role of a stress relief dog for Charles and the wider team in the office.


Pippin, an 11-month old golden labrador, stands at attention while his foster carer, Charles, holds his lead in the background.
Pippin, an 11-month old golden labrador, stands at attention while his foster carer, Charles, holds his lead in the background.

A natural fit

“Things became intense and stressful pretty suddenly here. I’ve been working long hours, there is a shared feeling of responsibility to get our response to this emergency right,” Charles said

“Pippin slipped into the role of putting smiles on people’s faces and making himself available for cuddles. He has a real penchant for cuddles. Everyone in the response (including the Minister) love seeing his smiling face coming down the corridor towards them.

“When I mentioned to the staff at Seeing Eye Dogs that he had started to double as emotional support, I think they understood immediately.”

Jane Bradley, Manager of Puppy Development at Seeing Eye Dogs, isn’t surprised that Pippin has taken to the role of a stress relief dog.

“Seeing Eye Dogs are specially selected, bred and trained dogs and a large part of their role is to interact calmly and closely with people and respond to directions from their human guardians,” she said.

“When they do not have their working harnesses on, they are a regular pet dog, enjoying cuddles, pats and praise from people around them.”

Charles agreed, and said it’s Pippin’s presence and nature that has allowed him to take on the stress relief role, rather than learning any new skills.

“For Pippin being an emotional support dog means just being around. He ensures people get a break and some fresh air by needing to go outside. He has a happy, smiling face and a love of giving and receiving affection that is very needed in the department at the moment.

“If he has a few days off everyone asks where he is. Sometimes he’ll stay home for a break because long days in offices is hard for everyone, especially puppies.”


Valuable experience

Not all Seeing Eye Dog puppies progress through the required training before they’re matched with a handler who is blind or has low vision. If Pippin proves not to be suitable as a Seeing Eye Dog, Jane said his experience with Charles could help him find as permanent career as a different sort of working dog.

 “We partner with a number of international and Australian agencies, including Border Force for professional knowledge sharing and genetic developments initiatives, and Integra Service Dogs, Assistance Dogs and Starlight Foundation to provide a quality dogs into other roles for clients that need them.

“The very high standard required for Seeing Eye Dog work means that not all our dogs can do that role, but are very well suited to other service dog jobs.”


Charles kneels besides Pippin and runs his head while smiling.
Charles kneels besides Pippin and runs his head while smiling.

A shining light

As the world comes to terms with the what the COVID-19 pandemic means, Charles said it’s important people stick together and look for sources of positivity, like Pippin.

“When I think of dogs working in emergencies I tend to think of search-and-rescue roles. But here we are in a strange world where we can’t touch or even stand near each other at the very time we need comfort most.

“Dogs, especially Pippin, remind us of the love and care that is in the world and that we all share for each other. That’s important. We all need to look after ourselves and our loved-ones despite the demands of these times. If dogs remind us and help us to do that, they are playing a vital role.”