Animals In Print
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15 March 2011 Issue

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Guide Dog Saves Master In NZ Earthquake

Ultimate loyalty: Kiwi ignored his survival instincts for Blair McConnell's sake. Relevant offersMEET a true Kiwi hero. Eight-year-old guide dog Kiwi braved the deadly chaos of the Christchurch quake to lead his master to safety through the crumbling city centre streets.

As blocks of concrete fell, people screamed and dust choked the air, the Labrador-cross guided Blair McConnell to safety along the banks of the Avon. McConnell, nearly totally blind, is a Telecom sales rep in the Old Exchange Building on Hereford Street.

He was dealing with a customer on the phone when the quake hit. "I dived under the desk. Kiwi was already under it," he said. "I grabbed Kiwi's harness and he was quite keen to get out of the building.

"We were out of the building in the middle of Hereford Street with hundreds of others when the second big aftershock hit. There was lots of screaming and hysterical people."

McConnell said Kiwi remained calm throughout the terrifying turmoil, leading him to the riverside where a passing motorist came to their rescue and drove them home. The ordeal took three hours.

"Some dogs feed off the emotion of the handler and the emotions of people around him," he said.

"Fortunately Kiwi puts what he needs to do above that. This is a strength of his."

"I guess the fundamental motivation of any animal is survival. Based on a threatening situation, for them to put the safety of their handler above the primeval requirement of survival is quite astounding," McConnell said.

Paul Metcalf, head of the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind's Guide Dog Services, says no dogs bolted, abandoning their owners during the quake.

"Handlers and dogs worked very well to get out of the area as quickly as possible," he said.

But he added many of the dogs were now suffering severe stress. "We needed to get people there to work with the dogs, to calm them down."

Staff will have to retrain each of the dogs - they cost an initial $25,000 to train - and some would come back to Auckland.

"There is also the harsh reality that some of the dogs will have to retire because of the stress they've been through. If one of the dogs is really struggling with it, we wouldn't put the dog under the same pressure again."

Old guide dogs are retired to foster homes. But not Kiwi just yet.

Source: [email protected]

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