Cleo key to new leash on life

Salvation:  Anne Cassin at her Nelson home with her new guide dog, Cleo.
Salvation: Anne Cassin at her Nelson home with her new guide dog, Cleo.

Anne Cassin's salvation has arrived in the form of a bouncy black labrador with a big appetite for loyal service as a guide dog, and an equally large appetite for the grapes ripening on the fence of her new central Nelson home.

Two-year-old Cleo arrived in Nelson last Friday and is spending an intense bonding period with Mrs Cassin, who just weeks ago lost her last guide dog, Peddie, to cancer.

Mrs Cassin's independence vanished with the loss of Peddie, a 6-year-old labrador which had been her constant companion for four years. Peddie became suddenly ill and died in Mrs Cassin's arms days later with the assistance of a veterinarian, who put her down when the pain she was in turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Mrs Cassin, 65, was left almost completely blind after suffering a stroke in 1998.

"People's lives are transformed by guide dogs, and when you don't have one beside you, your life is transformed again.

"It's such a terrible loss of independence and companionship."

Mrs Cassin is a former pilot and flying instructor, whose career was struck down by the stroke. She is blind in the left side of each eye and has blurred vision through the right side.

She took up flying to support raising her children after she was widowed by the fatal 1979 Mt Erebus crash. Her husband, Greg, was co-pilot of the ill-fated Air New Zealand DC-10.

Mrs Cassin was surprised and relieved a replacement for Peddie had happened so quickly.

"I've hardly left the house since Peddie died. It was a huge relief because I really feel imprisoned here."

Her first thoughts upon Cleo's arrival at her home was that she was black, and she could not see her at all.

"She was curious and lively and she licked my face as I bent to greet her.

"Later she was very quiet and laid on my feet and didn't move, but the next morning I got up and she almost bowled me over she was so excited to see me."

The pair's bonding game of "hide and seek", in which Mrs Cassin tossed pine cones in her small backyard, proved especially challenging for Cleo when they were accidently thrown over the fence.

The next steps would be introducing Cleo to the parts of Nelson Mrs Cassin visited regularly, including the Nelson Market, Tahunanui Beach, the marina and various walkways around the city.

That would be done with the help of Mrs Cassin's guide dog mobility instructor, Jessica Nelipovich.

Off-duty times for Cleo would no doubt be spent at the beach, which had been a favourite spot of Peddie's. "It's lovely these dogs can have normal dog time," Mrs Cassin said.

She was now looking forward to resuming her love of bush walks, guided by Cleo.

The RNZFB Guide Dog Services national fundraising event Red Puppy Appeal is on April 5 and 6. To volunteer as a street appeal collector or make a donation, visit or ph 0800 120 254. The RNZFB receives no government funding for Guide Dog Services.


The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB) is the main provider of sight loss services to people who are blind or have low vision. Every day,  an average of three New Zealanders register with the RNZFB for support with sight loss.

  • Five breeds of dogs are used for RNZFB guide dogs: Labrador retrievers, german shepherds, golden retrievers, and some purpose-bred first crosses are used. Standard poodles can be used in a home where someone is allergic to dog hair.
  • About 40 guide dogs are graduated each year.
  • Guide dogs are trained as puppies for two years, pass 55 different tests and walk many thousands of steps.
  • The average time spent waiting for a guide dog is six to 12 months.
  • The average working life of a guide dog is eight to 10 years.