If you’ve ever met a guide dog, you’d notice that they’re not as friendly as regular furkids. In actual fact, they are as fun-loving and playful while snuggling on the sofa, but when working, they are expected to be alert, obedient and focused on their jobs, which is to guide their visually impaired partners to safety.
Currently, Guide Dogs Association of the Blind (GDAB) is the only organisation with a guide dog programme. They began in 2006, and have since paired four guide dogs to their visually impaired owners, also known as guide dog teams. It's extremely difficult to find a suitable canine for their clients, and training alone can take up to 24 months, starting from puppyhood. Aside from working towards a more inclusive society for the blind, GDAB also strives to raise awareness on the importance of these canines for their clients.
We had the pleasure of observing a training session for GDAB’s latest team-in-progress Gary Lim and his Labrador Retriever, Jordie. When asked how Gary feels about his training so far, he jests, “It’s been a breeze because Jordie is very obedient and intelligent. Of course, it helps that I’m clever too!” As with Jordie, all the local guide canines are imported from Guide Dogs Victoria (Australia), and are selected based on their walking speeds and temperaments to suit the lifestyles of the relevant clients. “There isn't a science to it, but you can get a good match by looking at the right elements. You can’t just put any human-dog pair together; a mismatch could make it even more difficult for them both,” explains Vanessa Loh, GDAB's general manager. Of course, it is not all about the dog being right for the client. The new owner must also be mobile enough and ready to take on the responsibility of a furkid as he or she needs to learn how to feed, groom and toilet their new best friend.
Here's how it works: Clients (like Gary) will need to be taught how to direct their guide dog with the correct verbal commands, foot positions and arm movements. For example, when in a stationary position, Jordie understands “Jordie, forward!” as her cue to begin walking. These intelligent canines can assess the surroundings and lead their partners safely from point A to B, guiding them up elevated obstacles like kerbs and stairs, and away from overhead ones like tree branches. They are trained to ignore external distractions like other pets or food. The limitations, however, are that they are unable to read traffic signs and signals, and cannot determine routes to new destinations. The dogs can only bring their partners to places they have been taught to go, like their workplaces.
Aside from guide dogs, other furkids also provide comfort to those in need.
For the full story on the selfless therapy pets of Singapore, flip to our Animal Therapy Special in our June/July 2015 issue.