Albion Park woman Kimberlee Brooker lost her sight overnight when she was five, and dreamed of having a guide dog throughout her childhood.
At 18, her wish finally came true when she received Toffee – just three days after her last HSC exam.
Now she’s undertaking a law degree and able to confidently navigate the sprawling University of Wollongong campus with the golden labrador by her side.
‘’I lost my vision overnight although it took three months for me to be diagnosed with Rod Cone Dystrophy,’’ Ms Brooker, 20 said.
‘’I always knew that I wanted a guide dog and was finally able to undergo the assessment in Year 11 and got Toffee after my exams.
‘’It’s made me so much more independent and confident finding my way around university, shops and restaurants and catching public transport.’’
On Tuesday she attended a graduation ceremony at Port Kembla Golf Club, where six new guide dogs received their harnesses.
Illawarra puppy raisers, handlers and supporters joined Guide Dogs NSW/ACT representatives at the event, which showcased the dogs’ skills as well as the latest litter of puppies.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT trainer Ryan Jones said it took more than $35,000 to breed, raise and train each recruit.
Pups were cared for by volunteer puppy raisers until they were 14 months, when they began intensive training at the Guide Dogs’ Sydney centre. At two years old they were matched with a blind or vision impaired person.
‘’The demands placed on dogs in an increasingly urban environment are higher than ever,’’ Mr Jones said.
‘’There’s more traffic, a more cluttered and built-up environment, and people are leading busier lifestyles.
‘’We start their training in a calm environment but increasingly build up the complexity of the environment so they’re ready for that.’’
Great care goes into matching the right dog with the right owner.
‘’For instance one of today’s graduating dogs, Innes, is very energetic and so has been matched with a young guy who has a full-time job and has a fast-paced busy lifestyle,’’ Mr Jones said.
Last year 60 dogs graduated from the training program, with those not making the grade either going into other vocations such as the pets as therapy program or becoming household pets.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT general manager Sally Biles said demand for services was increasing, due to growing numbers of people having trouble getting around as a result of vision loss.
Each day in Australia, 28 people are diganosed with vision loss that cannot be corrected, including nine who will become blind.
To support the cause, visit www.guidedogs.com.au