Matt McLaren: 2016 International Guide Dog Day ambassador
Talented musician and Australia’s Got Talent finalist, Matt McLaren’s Guide Dog, Stamford, helps him travel safely and confidently to new places, but sometimes the public compromise this independence.
Each time the 27-year-old ventures out into the community, members of the public inadvertently distract Stamford from the very important role of guiding Matt to where he needs to go.
As a classically trained pianist who wowed the audience of Australia’s Got Talent, Matt, who has been blind since birth, is excited to be the 2016 Guide Dogs NSW/ACT International Guide Dog Day Ambassador.
“I am really looking forward to working with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT on its Respect My Uniform campaign and helping to educate the community on why they should resist patting or distracting Guide Dogs,” he said.
“Distracting a Guide Dog can be quite dangerous and I have many stories to tell about this. Common sense should prevail but the problem is people often don’t see the consequences of their actions.”
Matt’s talents are in high demand with a full schedule of gigs at pubs, clubs and weddings throughout the Newcastle and Hunter region where Stamford is always by his side.
“Stamford enables me to do so much more than I could with a cane, such as carry music gear to gigs around town and travel confidently to new places,” Matt said.
Matt McLaren with his Guide Dog Stamford (Photo by Chroma Photography)
“I always thought it would be difficult to put that much trust in an animal, but receiving Stamford completely changed that. He was so confident, and straight away knew what to do. It was truly liberating.”
“I’m living my life exactly the way I want to, and I want others to know that they can too,” he said.
The only limitation Matt faces is the public’s fascination with his Guide Dog, which can restrict his ability to move through different environments easily.
“People will try to talk to Stamford while I am walking, make clicking noises, pat him while I move past them and try to make eye contact with him,” Matt said.
He said although most people know you shouldn’t pat a Guide Dog in harness they still do.
“I often hear, ‘I know I shouldn’t be doing this’ as they pat Stamford or they ask if it is okay after they have started to pat him,” Matt said.
“I often need to refocus Stamford’s attention after he has been distracted before moving on, which can be very time consuming.”
Working in an industry where he often interacts with intoxicated people can exacerbate the problem.
“Sometimes people will not take no for an answer and will swear at me when they are politely asked not to pat him,” Matt said.
At a recent gig, Matt was carrying a keyboard into a venue and a member of the public wanted to play with Stamford. “There was a staircase straight ahead, but as Stamford was not on the ball, I walked straight into it.”
He said it was also important for the community to understand that Guide Dogs in harness are on duty, whether they are physically guiding a person or sitting at their feet.
“I have had a lady crawl onto the stage and lie down next to Stamford and on other occasions he has had food thrown at him,” Matt said.
Matt’s concerns are echoed by Guide Dog users around the country. In a survey conducted in 2015, 89 per cent of Guide Dog handlers reported that their Guide Dog had been distracted by members of the public.
Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.