WINSOME the guide dog puppy has mastered the art of travelling on escalators. It can be a frightening experience for some puppies but for Winsome, it's her favourite activity.
As Winsome celebrates her first birthday it's hard to believe that it's almost a year since she first appeared on computer screens in schools around the country as the seven week old 'star' of her own website - Winsome's Web World.
Visitors to the site know she has come a long way in that time and travelling on escalators is just one of the special skills she has learned during her year with her puppy walking family.
Winsome's Web World was designed by students at Manurewa High School in partnership with the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind and its supporter Kleenex.
Through this website, students around New Zealand have gained an insight into the life of a real guide dog puppy - Winsome's first car journey, her first tentative visit to the supermarket, her progress in obedience training and her love of escalators!
To mark Winsome's birthday milestone the student project team (team members a year older themselves) has enhanced the site with video clips of Winsome, e-cards, a virtual Kleenex puppy and the latest pupdates.
Right now it seems that Winsome has many of the attributes needed to be a great guide dog. The year with her puppy walking family has enabled her to develop all the basic obedience skills and exposed her to a wide variety of social experiences.
She has made it through all the tests and checks on the puppy training programme and on July 5, and she will move back to the kennels at RNZFB Guide Dog Services to start the initial assessment stage for the more formal guide dog training programme.
This is the fifth year that Kleenex has been involved with supporting the RNZFB guide dog puppy nursery and the company continues to support the students at Manurewa High School with the Winsome's Web World project.
Kleenex brand manager Tracy Leach says: "We are thrilled that guide dog puppy Winsome is doing so well with her training. The students at Manurewa High School have done a great job keeping the website fresh and informative, enabling young people to learn more about what makes puppies like Winsome so special, and how real puppies become guide dogs."
The student project team at Manurewa High School will be keeping in contact with RNZFB Guide Dog Services and will provide updates on Winsome's progress to its growing Internet audience via Winsome's Web World. If all goes well the team hopes to bring news of her graduation as a fully-fledged guide dog around the end of this year.
Students throughout the country can continue to follow Winsome's progress by visiting www.manurewa.school.nz and following the link to Winsome's Web World.
What it takes to train a Guide Dog
* The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind is the only organisation in New Zealand that trains guide dogs and it currently has around 300 working guide dog teams.
* Guide dogs that have excelled in many areas of their training and selection are chosen as breeding stock for the next generation.
* The puppies are born at RNZFB Guide Dog Services in Auckland and cared for in the puppy nursery until they are approximately seven weeks old.
* After about seven weeks the puppies are placed with volunteer puppy walkers, who feed, exercise and care for the puppy as well as introducing it to situations it will face as a guide dog, eg. walking in public, coping with traffic, learning to 'stay' when told, getting used to other dogs (and the family cat), and riding on escalators and elevators.
* At about 15 months old, the dog returns to Guide Dog Services to be assessed on 56 different aspects of personality, character and health. These assessments are thorough and only those successful will progress to be trained as a guide dog.
* The in-depth training involves trainers working with the dogs as if they themselves are blind or vision-impaired - sometimes wearing a blindfold. Every day the dog will go out on training walks, learning, practising and building the necessary guiding skills. The focus of this training is to give the dog an understanding of what it means to work as a team.
* When qualified as a guide dog, a dog has to show many key qualities, two of which are honesty and a good sense of right and wrong. They must be able to find their way to a queue in a bank, post office, or a place of business. The dog must also have developed the essential skill of taking responsibility for safely guiding its trainer around obstacles and people.
* Usually at around 21 months old, a successful dog will have been through in-depth training and qualified as a guide dog. Matching a dog with the appropriate partner is a long process where over 30 traits of both person and dog are considered to ensure a successful team.
* Only when both dog and handler have successfully bonded and trained together as a team, will a guide dog have officially graduated. In some cases it will have taken two years or more to get this stage where a guide dog begins what will be a lasting partnership with its blind handler. As adult dogs, they often work for eight to 10 years before retiring.
* The partnership is profound and instinctive and after retiring, guide dogs often stay on with their handler as a pet, and to keep an eye on their replacement, so to speak.
* It costs $22,500 to breed, raise, train and match a guide dog.