Article by: Jackie Quail
The SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind (GDA) is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to provide services that positively change the lives of the visually and physically disabled, as well as children on the low end of the autism spectrum. GDA’s head office is in Johannesburg, with two satellite offices in Cape Town and Durban. The Association trains Assistance Dogs as well as provides Orientation and Mobility training for the blind.
GDA focuses on the training of three different types of Assistance Dogs. Guide Dogs are trained for people with visual impairments, Service Dogs for people with physical disabilities and Autism Support Dogs for children on the low end of the autism spectrum.
While the Johannesburg training centre focuses on training all three types of Assistance Dogs for the people of South Africa, the Cape Town training centre only focuses on training Guide Dogs for the Blind.
SA Guide-Dogs runs its own breeding programme. Puppies are born in the Puppy Block at SA Guide-Dogs Head Office in Johannesburg. for the first eight weeks of their lives they live in the Puppy Block with their mum and begin their exposure to multiple stimuli and environments. After eight weeks they leave their siblings to live with volunteer Puppy Raisers. Usually two puppies from each litter are transported to Cape Town to be raised and trained at the S A Guide-Dog Cape Town offices in Claremont.
The young puppies start learning basic obedience from the age of nine-weeks old when they attend their first puppy classes with their siblings. It is important for all dogs, especially Assistance Dogs, to know how to be well mannered and behave in public.
Best friends Tania Robbertze and Wendy Purdon live just two roads apart in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. These ladies belong to a very dedicated volunteer group of people called S A Guide-Dogs Puppy Raisers. Puppy Raisers are people who open their homes and their hearts to help raise young puppies destined to become Assistance Dogs for the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind.
Tania has raised a total of four Assistance dogs for the Association, most of which became Guide Dogs for clients with visual impairment. Wendy, still fairly new to Puppy Raising, has raised one dog that is now in training to become a Guide Dog. Both ladies are currently raising sister puppies, Yasmin and Yale.
The role of volunteer Puppy Raisers like Tania and Wendy is to expose the future Assistance Dogs to as many social situations as possible. The Puppies are taken to public places like shops, offices and restaurants to help them feel comfortable with various social situations that they may need to work in when they are older.
“I told my sons that I have replaced them with Labrador Pups,” says Tania, “I was about to enter the Empty Nest Stage as my boys were moving out of home. This is a sustainable and workable way for me to give back. I get to raise pups and be useful.”
At the age of around 16 months the young dogs come back to the training centre where they begin the formal training and start learning the skills they will need to qualify as Assistance Dogs. It is at this age that Assistance Dog Mobility Instructors from the Association decide which Assistance Training the dogs will take on.
Deciding whether a dog should be a Guide, Service or Autism Support Dog depends on their personality. All Assistance Dogs need to be willing to work, keen to please and also patient.
SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind mainly breeds Labradors and Golden Retrievers as these breeds have the necessary personality and temperament associated with a good Assistance Dog. Guide Dogs need to be calm, adaptable and friendly, Service Dogs need to have a natural ability and desire to retrieve objects and Autism Support Dogs need to be gentle and placid with a temperament that isn’t upset by noise or meltdowns often associated with autistic children.
The Cape Town training centre only focuses on training Guide Dogs for the Visually Impaired. Currently in training are Tania and Wendy’s two previous Labrador puppies, Gladys and Elva. In formal Guide Dog training the dogs are taught how to navigate around obstacles that might be in their way. They learn how to stop at kerbs so that their owners can listen for traffic before crossing the road, as well as how to find the button on the pole to press before crossing at a traffic light. Guide Dogs also learn to look out for obstacles above them such as low hanging tree branches so that they can safely lead their owner around them.
Service Dogs learn how to push and pull so that they can open and close doors, drawers and cupboards as well as assist with switching lights on and off. Door handles need to be adapted to make it possible for the Service Dogs to assist with pulling down the lever. They are also taught to pick up items off the floor, as well as to retrieve items from other rooms for their owners. Service dogs are trained specifically to their owner’s needs and circumstances.
Autism Support Dogs provide anchoring (which stops the child from bolting), and companionship for children who are often lonely due to their autism. The benefit of an Autism Support Dog is not only to the child, but it also extends to the family.
“There is huge relief, delight and sadness when your dog is ready to go to formal training,” say Tania and Wendy. “Like the feeling you get when sending your child off to High School.”
Once the dogs have completed their formal training, they are then matched with a new owner from the waiting list.
After submitting an application form, Assistance Dog Mobility Instructors from the Association will conduct a home visit and interview with the client to make sure that they meet the necessary criteria needed to be matched with a dog. Once all is signed off, the client is added to the waiting list for a dog.
The Mobility Instructors at S A Guide- Dogs Association have the responsibility of matching clients on the waiting list with the correct dog. This requires them to carefully consider that the dog’s temperament, speed and size will be the right fit for the correct person.
“The matching is such a wonderful process,” says Wendy, “It is an intuitive and intrinsic thing done with heart and gut instinct. It is a calling rather than a job.”
Tania has had two of her dogs successfully matched with their owners in the last two years. Yellow Labrador, Milan was matched with his owner Hector Loftus in 2019 and Black Labrador, Onyx was matched with her owner, Sanette Wiese in 2020. Both owners live in Worcester, Western Cape.
“Milan opens my world. He provides me with independence. We go everywhere together, from work to the mall, to visiting other friends around Worcester. We have even travelled to Potchefstroom and Mossel Bay together.” Says Guide Dog Owner, Hector Loftus.
Once they have been successfully matched, the Guide Dog owners and their new dogs stay in accommodation on the Guide-Dogs premises either in Cape Town or Johannesburg and undergo training known to the Association as “Class”. Over the course of two weeks the new pairings are taught how to work together as unit under the careful guidance and instruction of the Guide Dog Mobility Instructors.
Once the class is complete, they attend a graduation ceremony before leaving the Training Centre to start their new lives together.
“There is something so deeply emotional about watching my dog walk with his or her new owner down the road. The new owner and dog become such a unit. I can never be what my dog needs at that point, because I don’t need an Assistance Dog in that way.” says Tania.
Over the course of another two weeks Guide Dog Mobility Instructors from the Association visit the new owners and dogs in their homes to assist in training the dogs in their new environments. One of the most important elements of the home training is that Guide Dogs are taught the routes that they will need to guide their owner on safely.
Class for Service and Autism Support Dogs is mainly taught in the new owner’s homes as these dogs are trained to the owner specific needs and requirements.
It costs the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind in excess of R100 000.00 to breed and train one Assistance Dog. As a Non-Profit Organisation, the Association receives no government funding and relies on fundraising initiatives and donations from the public to keep the doors open.
The Association offers a Dog Sponsorship Programme called “Litter Legends”. Corporate Companies and individuals are encouraged to donate towards sponsoring a litter of Assistance Dog Puppies. Sponsors can watch the litter grow up and receive training updates by belonging to a private Facebook Group dedicated to their litter. More information on this as well as other ways to donate can be found on the website: www.guidedog.org.za
Assistance Dog applications are made by contacting S A Guide-Dogs office by either phone or email.
Orientation & Mobility
South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind has another important department run from the Head Office in Johannesburg. Established to provide people with visual impairments with an alternative to a Guide Dog, the Orientation & Mobility Department teaches valuable life skills, mainly the long cane. The long cane is an extremely useful mobility aid that can become an extension of a person’s sense of touch.
Freedom and independence mean different things to different people. To a person who is visually impaired it may mean the ability to go to the bank, visit friends, go shopping unaided or travel to work safely. The skills needed to be able to know where they are and how to move around safely are called Orientation and Mobility (O&M).
Of the 23 schools for Visually Impaired people across South Africa, only four employ full time O&M Instructors. The others rely on programmes run by Non Profit Organisations. This means that the majority of Visually Impaired children who finish school do not have white cane skills and therefore have limited ability to independently navigate their world.
The SA Guide-Dogs Association employs six qualified O&M practitioners to provide white Cane and other life skills training to the public. These services are currently only rovided in Gauteng.
“People are also under the impression that these services would be expensive. All of our training services are free of charge to the public.” says Elizabeth Louw, Head of O&M at S A Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind.
O&M Practitioners build up referral networks in communities by visiting local clinics and networking with disability self-help groups. The Practitioners’ clients can range from preschool children to the elderly.
Once a client is identified, the O&M Practitioner will travel to their home or workplace to conduct an interview where they can establish their needs. From this the Practitioner can work out a training programme to help the client reach their desired goals. Skills that form part of the training programme include: Home care such as sweeping, peeling and cooking vegetables, cooking, ironing, pouring hot water, identifying money and using an ATM.
The white cane training includes learning the techniques, identifying landmarks, learning routes to local shops, workplaces and clinics as well as learning routes to public transport networks.
The client is visited on average about twice a week for three months or until all of their goals are reached. The clients are provided with folding white cane, a liquid level indicator that beeps when the water has reached the correct level and a money template and signature guide that allows for identification of notes a guide to write a signature.
The O&M Support Team also has the task of making the public aware of the services that they provide. As there are so few O&M Practitioners in South Africa, communities are not always aware that these service are available.
There are many ways to support the Orientation & Mobility department at S A Guide-Dogs Association. Readers interested in donating can visit the S A Guide-Dogs website and donate towards assistive devices, training sessions or sign up for monthly debit order donations.