Meeting South Africa's guide dogs
21 December 2012
Along a leafy suburban street, a man walks his dog. It could be a scene from any South African town, but this is one duo with a difference.
The young Labrador is a guide dog in training and her companion is a professional trainer - known as a guide dog mobility instructor - with the South African Guide Dogs Association for the Blind.
The day's activity involves trainer Joel van Stavel taking his six charges from the Gladys Evans Training Centre in Rietfontein, north of Johannesburg, to busy suburb Parkview.
Here the dogs will be put through their paces in what will be a "natural environment" for them once they have graduated and become working dogs.
Training the next generation of guide dogs
Tyrone Avenue in Parkview provides a perfect training ground for the dogs as it has "everything a guide dog needs and will deal with".
There are stop streets and traffic circles to contend with, busy roads to traverse, as well as human traffic and other dogs to deal with.
There is the hubbub of daily life going on around them, which they will need to be able to deal with without getting distracted when they are working guide dogs.
Parkview is only one of a number of locations around Johannesburg used for training. "We go to different places for different needs," Van Stavel says.
Norwood, Rosebank and shopping malls around the city also feature as training grounds. "It depends on what the dogs need."
However, training the dogs in public places also poses a risk as many people want to touch the dogs. As it distracts the dogs from their work, the guide dog association encourages people not to pet them without asking first.
"Some people, especially children, rush up to touch the dogs," Van Stavel says. "Stop and ask first, I will never say no."
Adapting to each dog's personality
Van Stavel has been a trainer since 2008, although he has been involved with the Guide Dogs Association since he left school.
When a position for a trainer opened, he applied and got the job. There followed a three-year apprenticeship with exams every six months. "During and after your apprenticeship, you are constantly learning," he says.
"One thing doesn't work for every dog, so you need to adapt."
Like people, each dog has his or her own personality and trainers need to adapt their approach to accommodate each of their charges.
Van Stavel's current class of six is made up of Rankyn, brothers Luca and Lexus, and the "O" sisters: Ohio, Odette and Oakley.
Rankyn is an excitable white Labrador with a tendency to get distracted by other dogs. In terms of his training, Van Stavel focuses on doing lots of obedience work with him and calming him down.
"I only need to work on his distraction with other dogs," he says. "He is not bothered by loud noises and traffic; he is the type of dog who could work in Johannesburg city centre, but his issue with other dogs could get him rejected."
There are two reasons a dog in training would be rejected and not go on to graduate as a fully-fledged working dog: health or temperament.
Should a dog be deemed unsuitable to work as a guide dog, he or she will be re- homed as a pet. First option goes to the people who have raised and looked after the puppies, and if for any reason they are unable to take on the dog, the Guide Dog Association will find a home. There is a waiting list for these dogs.
Black Labrador Ohio is one of Van Stavel's star students and has overtaken her sisters. "Ohio is a little bit ahead of the others."
She is already in harness, while her sisters remain in jacket. "In harness the dog is doing the work, while in jacket the trainer is doing the work and moulding him or her to become a guide dog," Van Stavel says.
Odette and Oakley are both still in jacket.
"Odette is not ready for the harness yet, she is lacking in confidence and is scared of dogs barking at her," he says. "She is also not leading, she is hanging back."
Oakley has no such confidence issues, but having only joined Van Stavel's training group five weeks ago, she is not at the harness level. "She hasn't learnt everything she needs to yet."
Golden retriever brothers Luca and Lexus are both advancing well with their training and are in harness.
Luca is a sensitive soul, and Van Stavel needs to adjust his training accordingly. "My approach has to be different. Because I'm a big man, I'm dominant over them so need to be calm.
"Luca also loves people, which may be his downfall."
Lexus, on the other hand, only battles with motion sickness. "He is the only dog named after a car that gets car sick."
Finding a suitable match
Throughout the training process, Van Stavel monitors each of his dogs and mentally tries to match them to people on the association's waiting list. "Ohio is a slow dog so would be suited to someone who does not live a fast-paced life," he says.
Also, to ensure that the dogs are not responding solely to the trainers, they will work with a blindfold coming to the end of the training cycle.
"When finished with the training, we will look at the waiting list and see if anyone is suitable," says Guide Dog Services Manager, Gail Glover. "We will always give preference to people who have had a guide dog before."
It all comes down to making a suitable match. "The dog and person are a team," she explains.
Once all training has been completed and a match has been made, the blind people receiving dogs will go to the training centre for three weeks of orientation and bonding.
It costs the blind person R5 for the dog and R100 for three weeks of board and lodging.
"After the three weeks, the dog and person will go home accompanied by a trainer for a week or two," Glover says. "When the dog is working safely and effectively, the trainer leaves."
The association stays in touch with guide dog owners throughout the dog's working life and pays them regular visits to maintain safety standards.
Training and matching dogs with blind owners is only a fraction of the work that the Gladys Evans Training Centre does. Service and social dogs are also trained there to assist people with disabilities other than blindness, such as those with autism or confined to a wheelchair through multiple sclerosis or as the result of motor accidents.
Training for service dogs is different to guide dog training as it is food and clicker- based. The process for matching dogs and owners and training them to work together as a team is the same, though.
The life cycle of a guide dog
The puppies at the centre come from specially selected stock, often from dogs already bred by the association.
They live at the centre for the first seven or eight weeks of their life. Training for their future careers begins with sound CDs, which play noises such as hooting cars to acclimatise them to factors they will have to deal with as working dogs.
After this, they will go to "puppy raisers" - all of whom are volunteers - for approximately a year. During this period, puppies are socialised as much as possible through socialisation and obedience training sessions, as well as individual home sessions.
The dog will then progress to advanced training, which involves obedience training, obstacle and traffic work, among other things.
A rich history
The association has come a long way since it was founded in 1953 by Gladys Evans after she returned from England with her dog Sheena and rented a temporary training centre in Parkwood, Johannesburg.
It moved to its first real home in 1958, to a six-acre property called "Vale Cottage" in Parkmore, Sandton. It was later renamed the Gladys Evans Training Centre and remained the home of the organisation until 1986, when demand outgrew space.
The Gladys Evans Training Centre moved to an 11-acre property on Wroxham Road in Rietfontein, where it still stands today. There are also offices in Cape Town and Durban.
The Johannesburg centre boasts all the necessary facilities to handle and train dogs from puppyhood to retirement, as well as train people receiving either guide or service dogs.
It is an independent organisation and relies on donations and sponsorships in addition to its own fundraising initiatives.
For more information on the work done by the South African Guide Dogs Association for the Blind, you can visit www.guidedog.org.za.
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