Sandy Tocher is quite the character. Tyson Young meets an Oamaru man who has enough stories to fill a book.
Sandy Tocher is proud to admit he has lived a life less ordinary.
The Oamaru octogenarian has been a joiner, a soldier and a teacher, but the highlight of his life has been playing a major role in helping train guide dogs.
Born in 1932 in Thurso, Scotland, Mr Tocher was raised in a house full of brothers.
“If I had been able to speak when I was born, I would say, ‘Mother put me back – it’s freezing here in Scotland’,” he joked.
Travelling abroad became the norm for Mr Tocher at a young age.
“My father was a travelling salesman – so we used to travel the country.”
Once he was old enough, Mr Tocher completed an apprenticeship in joinery.
The day after finishing his apprenticeship, he joined the Black Watch, the royal regiment of Scotland, and spent three years in Egypt during the Cyprus crisis.
Although he enjoyed the sights and the heat, Egypt was never a place he would call home.
Many Egyptians hated the idea of a foreign army occupying their homeland, he said.
“They did not like us there and I didn’t like being there.”
When he finished serving in Egypt, Mr Tocher went back to working as a joiner in Scotland, but he did not exactly love that job either.
One day, unexpectedly, he discovered what would become one of the great interests of his life.
He saw an advertisement in the local newspaper about a group looking for guide dog trainers for the blind, and landed a job.
A few years later, he decided he wanted to take his passion for training guide dogs to the world.
Initially, working in South Africa was on the cards, but he was put off by the apartheid regime.
“I wouldn’t have the pupil and the dog sitting on one side of the bus and me sitting on the other.
“Apartheid killed it for me.”
In the early 1970s, Mr Tocher moved to Auckland, where he became one of the first guide dog trainers in New Zealand.
His favourite dogs to train were Labradors and golden retrievers.
Potential guide dogs came to him as puppies, and after being assessed for such things as behaviour, speed, agility, sight and hearing, they began their training.
After about three months, dogs who graduated from training were ready to live and work with handlers.
Mr Tocher said the hardest part of the job was saying goodbye to dogs to which he had become attached – something that happened more often than he would like to admit.
“I’ve got a very special place in my heart for guide dogs.”
Mr Tocher had a touching but frightening experience that etched itself into his mind.
One day, while observing a guide dog with a blind companion near a busy road, the person accidentally stumbled on to the road.
A truck approached at pace. Mr Tocher wanted to help but was too far away to intervene, but the dog snapped into action by pulling its lead away from the road, yanking the person to safety.
“There’s such a bond between the two. The dog doesn’t just think for itself – it thinks for its new owner.
“I was amazed at that.”
Eventually, Mr Tocher and his wife shifted to North Otago to be closer to their grandchildren.
When his wife died, Mr Tocher decided he wanted to stay in Oamaru.
Just a few weeks off turning 86, he spends much of his time making bundles of kindling out of recycled timber with a circular saw in his woodshed.
The kindling is sold or is donated to people who cannot afford to buy their own.
It was good way to keep busy and “out of mischief”, he said.