For the past 15 months, Doug the dog has been at the centre of Leoni Tooth’s life.
The labrador, who was only nine weeks’ old when they first met, went everywhere with her and quickly became a core part of her family.
Now she has had to give him up.
While she always knew this day would come, that does not make it any easier.
Her time with Doug has been vitally important in laying the groundwork that could result in him becoming a much-needed guide dog.
Guide Dogs Queensland said it had been up to Ms Tooth to instil the ethos of a working dog in Doug before they could begin the formal stage of his training.
Ms Tooth, a retired pharmacist, had a friend with three nieces who were vision-impaired and would eventually need guide dogs.
It inspired her to bring a puppy into her life for the first time.
“I thought the greatest gift you can give is time … and I had the time to help raise a puppy which may be suitable to become a guide dog,” she said.
The success rate is not high.
Only about half of all puppies raised make the grade to go on and become a qualified guide dog.
“The learning curve was vertical at first. It was about exposing him to everything so he felt comfortable in shopping centres, in lifts on escalators and could behave around crowds, in the theatre — and even the toilet,” Ms Tooth said.
“They have to be able to focus totally on the place their handler needs them to go and Doug was a quick learner.
“The coat helps to remind people not to pat Doug when he’s working … but otherwise it is important he is socialised just like any other dog.”
Doug sleeps in a crate supplied by Guide Dogs Queensland, who also funds the dog’s food and veterinary needs.
Ms Tooth was in tears yesterday when she handed Doug back for the next stage of training.
“It has been all-consuming but a great joy,” she said.
“I knew when I got him that he was borrowed and it was my job to do the best job I could to raise him and that he’d have to go back,” she said.
“I cling to the notion that these dogs are transformational for the people who need them.
“This is the dead space in their lives and if no-one will volunteer to take them on it would be far too expensive to train a guide dog.”
‘Big demand, but not enough dogs available’
Guide Dogs Queensland spokeswoman Mary Chapell, who is responsible for puppy raising and guide dog training, said it cost about $50,000 to train and maintain a guide dog over its 10-year working life.
“We’re in crisis at the moment as we have about 20 puppies that need to be placed and only four people on our list volunteering to be puppy raisers,” Ms Chapell said.
“Each year we breed about 50 to 60 puppies that we hope will go on to be trained as guide dogs.”
Five years ago there was a waiting list of about eight people for a blind or vision-impaired person to get a guide dog — now it’s 45.
“There’s big demand and just not enough guide dogs available,” Ms Chapell said.
It is a substantial commitment requiring a lot of time, love and patience on behalf of the puppy raiser.
Doug has been a star performer and will start guide dog training soon and be qualified by the new year.
Ms Tooth said she expected the emotion of losing Doug would just momentary — she said she would not hesitate to do it all again.