Inching closer to independence
Robert Bensemann's eyes have four legs and blonde hair. The 67-year-old is legally blind and relies on his 18-month-old guide-dog Inchy to see for him and guide him around Richmond on his daily outings. Mr Bensemann got Inchy in November, four months after his previous guide-dog James died of thyroid cancer. Tomorrow is the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind's annual Red Puppy Appeal day, which will see red-coated puppies on streets around the country to raise awareness of the cause.
Mr Bensemann summed up what his guide dog means to him in one word. "Independence." Inchy gives him mobility to get out of the house to go into Richmond for a coffee or pay the bills. He tried to get out every day, especially as Inchy was still a puppy and was still finishing his training.
Mr Bensemann said Inchy was trained to help him cross roads, and guided him around Richmond by responding to basic instructions like town, home, bank, left and right.
Inchy was trained by a Scottish man in Auckland, so he initially didn't understand Mr Bensemann's commands to turn left and right. This was fixed by Mr Bensemann giving the directions with a Scottish accent.
Mr Bensemann said once he was in town Inchy knew how to get to basic locations in Richmond, including a coffee shop, the music shop in the mall, bank and Lotto shop. Once at the Richmond Mall, both he and Inchy knew he was at the music shop in the mall by the sound of music, and at the coffee shop by the smell of coffee.
Mr Bensemann said he started losing his sight in 1979, and has the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa. The disease was genetic, but nobody seemed to know where it came from in his case, he said. "It's like looking through a round tube, which just gets smaller until it just gets all fuzzy. I can see certain things on certain days in certain situations."
Inchy, and his light-coloured coat, attracted a lot of attention when he took him down town and was a particular hit with children. He said people should always ask the dog's owner if they could pat a guide-dog, and they shouldn't disturb them while they were working.
"And don't stop them while they are in the middle of a pedestrian crossing," he laughed.
He said in his case he didn't mind people interacting with him or Inchy.
Mr Bensemann said Inchy at 18 months was still training, and like any adolescent he didn't always like doing what he was told. For example, he always dragged his heels on the way home, by walking very slowly, as he didn't always want his outings to end.
Mr Bensemann said he knew of nine guide dogs in the Nelson region, and while it might cost $20,000 to train a dog initially there was also a lot of on-going costs with a dog that the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind (RNZFB) also largely funded.
RNZFB chief executive Sandra Budd said the organisation received no government funding for guide dog services, so every dollar collected during the appeal counted.
The organisation has more than 1200 blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted members in the greater Canterbury area, including 40 guide dog owners.
She said many of those guide dogs would need retraining as their usual routes and routines had changed dramatically with the Christchurch earthquake.
To make a donation to the RNZFB visit redpuppy.org.nz or phone 0800 733 787.