Puppy trainer Jan de Waal with Selleck, his 3-and-a-half-month old Labrador he is training to be a guide dog. De Waal and Selleck will be at a Mandela Day promotion for the SA Guide Dog Association for the Blind at La Lucia Mall this weekend, until July 18, from 10am to noon. Pictures: Leon Lestrade
Puppy trainer Jan de Waal with Selleck, his 3-and-a-half-month old Labrador he is training to be a guide dog. De Waal and Selleck will be at a Mandela Day promotion for the SA Guide Dog Association for the Blind at La Lucia Mall this weekend, until July 18, from 10am to noon. Pictures: Leon Lestrade
Learner Driver: Selleck’s training bib.
Learner Driver: Selleck’s training bib.
“Meet Selleck – as in Tom,” Jan de Waal says as he introduces his charge – a 3-and-a-half-month old Labrador.
Selleck came to De Waal via the SA Guide Dog Association for the Blind breeding programme. “He’s still a learner driver,” De Waal tells me as he points to the big L on the back of his dog’s bib.
Selleck is also something of a people magnet. But even at this early stage, he only interacts with those on De Waal’s command. He’s told to sit, which he does eagerly, before he can say hello. 
“We’ve gone to schools and homes and talked to more than 500 kids. Selleck has been a real star. Children love him.
De Waal tells how he became a puppy trainer. He had been involved with dogs for 45 years and had been a qualified dog trainer for eight. 
“But then I met a blind person and their dog. I wondered how it all came about and decided this was something I really wanted to do. I filled in the application, but as I was working full-time and travelling to North Africa a lot. They said no.”
But he was not deterred. When he retired, he reapplied. “I was accepted on Tuesday and on Friday I was told Ivan was ready. He was a beautiful black Labrador.”
Since then, nine puppies have been through his hands, six females and three males. 
The programme starts when the puppy is seven weeks old and involves training every day, the dog with the puppy trainer all the time. There are supervisors and mentors for the puppy trainers. 
“You’ve got to remember, they’re not pets but working dogs in training,” De Waal says. 
For the first 20 weeks, the puppy trainers meet once a week for social and orientation walks. The puppies are trained to go to the toilet on command and to eat on command,” says De Waal.
“You start thinking like a blind person, and how they cope, and what the dog can do to help them cope,” he says.
The association helps with food and vets bills. “Our dogs are number 1,” De Waal said, “and we’re all a team to make them number 1.”
Then, at about one year old, the puppies get their “dreaded call-up notice” for formal training. De Waal was staggered by the patience of the trainers and the results they achieved with the dogs. After six months, the dogs are evaluated and constantly retested. They are ready to find a home and start their working lives, which average six to eight years.
About a third don’t make it through to the final stages, De Waal says, “but we try 
not to see our dogs as failures. We just regard it as a 
career change”.
Ané Roux of the Guide Dog Association says last year it trained just under 100 dogs and the association aims to double that in the shortest possible time. 
“We match the dog with the person and with your needs, so it’s crucial you get on our waiting list as soon as possible,” she says. “It costs about R100 000 to train a dog and we give it to you for R5, but the dog is never a gift. We monitor it constantly.”
Roux said the ideal puppy-raiser would be from an environment that exposed the puppy to a number of different experiences. “We love weird and wacky families, with kids and other dogs and birds and things happening,” she said. 
Each family is evaluated in line with stringent criteria.
“You teach a dog through patience, love and guidance,” said De Waal.
Roux says attitudes to dogs were changing. “Many people are turned away by ignorance when they see a dog. But security guards are slowly becoming more used to it and accepting.” 
De Waal is moving from Johannesburg to retire in Scottburgh, so Selleck is the association’s first KwaZulu-Natal-trained dog and is looking for puppy-raisers, or “foster parents”, as De Waal puts it, in the province. 
The Independent on Saturday