The best unpaid job in Australia
THE hours are long and unpredictable, with lots of surprise tasks in the middle of the night and at the crack of dawn, and there's absolutely no salary.
But this could just be the best - and the cutest - temp job going in Australia.
For the past year, Melbourne social impact strategy consultant Lee Crockford has been a foster dad to Romeo, an adorable Labrador puppy and future seeing eye dog.
The 34-year-old manages all of the canine's basic training, from toilet use to walking on a lead, and prepares him for stressful environments he will soon routinely encounter.
"It's like having a regular dog of your own, instilling good behaviours and taking care of them," Mr Crockford told news.com.au.
"He comes everywhere with me. We go to the gym and do groceries, he comes to the office with me, we go to meetings, out to cafes … he's my shadow. He gets to come when I travel, jumping on the plane as my travel buddy."
Before this opportunity presented itself, Mr Crockford was actually looking for a permanent dog and found a potential furry friend at his local RSPCA shelter.
"But by the time I got approval from the landlord, he had been adopted," he said.
"Around the same time, I saw something on Facebook about carers for future seeing eye dogs. It ticked a lot of boxes for me - it's a one-year commitment, they pay for food, medical and equipment. It was a great trial run option for having a dog myself."
About this time last year, Mr Crockford, director of the social impact organisation Spur, received a text message with a picture of a little golden ball advising that his foster pup was almost ready to come home.
In January, he collected Romeo and the pair became best friends instantly, spending every waking and sleeping moment together.
As well as standard puppy training, the pair visits a whole host of anxious spaces, from train stations to grocery stores.
"Something like a supermarket is challenging for dogs, "Mr Crockford explained.
"There's a lot of stimuli - crowds of people, lots of noise, the smell of meat, trolleys, all of those sorts of things. They're environments that are simple for us as humans and we take it for granted, but they could be quite anxious spaces for dogs.
"They're going to lead vision impaired people around so they need to be calm and focused in a wide variety of environments."
They've been to parks to experience being around children, in the back of Ubers to get used to car travel and wandered around Bunnings to adjust to a maze-like layout.
Legally, the only places seeing eye dogs aren't permitted are the kitchen of a restaurant, a hospital operating theatre and the butterfly enclosure at zoos.
"Dogs like to eat butterflies," Mr Crockford said.
From time-to-time, he and Romeo spend time with a certified handler from Seeing Eye Dogs Australia who monitors the progress of both the puppy and the foster dad.
And despite the challenges young dogs pose, Mr Crockford has had a dream experience.
"I think I've been really lucky. My handler tells me that when I get a dog in the future, I shouldn't expect them to be like Romeo. He's a placid dog and very well-natured.
"He's been great. He doesn't bark and in the whole time I've had him, I think we've only had three toilet accidents. All in all, it's been amazing."
The only worrying experience involved a plastic container on a hot summer day, he said.
"He loves to eat ice when it's hot, so I left him a bucket full while I went to the shops for half an hour. Not even thinking about it, he doesn't chew things, I came back and he'd eaten the container.
"We spent the next three days at the vet to make sure he passed the plastic without injury."
Everywhere they go, Romeo is the centre of attention and affection.
He has to learn to be in work mode when wearing his harness, so he can't enjoy too many pats, but once the vest comes off he's showered in love.
"The best experience is when I go to business meetings and I walk into a board meeting with stern men in suits suddenly drop to their hands and knees playing with this puppy. It's a good icebreaker."
Mr Crockford has also enjoyed seeing how Romeo brings out the best in people, particularly those who think he's an actively working guide dog.
"There are people who aren't sure if I'm vision impaired so a number of people ask if I want assistance on public transport or with getting my bag at the airport. You see the nice side of humanity as well."
At his last check-in with the handler, there was good news for Romeo and sad news for Mr Crockford.
The dog is ready to leave foster care and enter full-time training. In two weeks, their time together will come to an end.
"It's going to be pretty tough, I think. I'm starting to stockpile the wine now," Mr Crockford said.
"There was a moment when he was four or five months old when I met a woman who is vision impaired and has a dog. Hearing her talk about how much of a difference a seeing eye dog made to her life was a big, clarifying moment for me.
"I still think I'll have to lock myself in a dark room for a few days, but I have a really good sense of what it's all for."
Despite his fears about having to say goodbye, Mr Crockford said the whole experience had been a joyful one and he'd do it again.
"Not right now, but absolutely in the future. I've loved it."
For information about becoming a puppy carer, visit the Seeing Eye Dogs website.