Pieter van Niekerk and his guide dog, Shogun, ham it up for the camera at the SA Guide Dog Association in Paulshof, northern Johannesburg. Picture: Kevin Ritchie
Many people still think service dogs are just pets and treat them as such, even barring them from access to their business premises with their owners.

They are not allowed to - in fact, the Constitution prohibits it.

Now the SA Guide Dog Association intends rolling out an awareness campaign to educate people on exactly that.

“It’s quite clear there is a lack of understanding and knowledge about what a working dog is and what their role is when accompanying someone with a disability,” says the association’s head of marketing, Nadia Sands.

“Many people think it’s just a pet, that it’s unhygienic or could bite you. This is definitely not the case when it comes to our dogs. They are highly trained and socialised so they can accompany their owner to any venue.

“Although there are legal repercussions for people who deny people with working dogs access, our aim is to use the campaign as a learning rather than a punitive tool. However, should an organisation not comply, we will assist our clients with taking legal action.”

The association is the only accredited organisation in South Africa that trains guide, service and autism support dogs. The waiting list is long. According to last census, South Africa has more than 1.5million visually impaired people, but the association can only provide 40 dogs a year because it depends totally on the public’s goodwill.

“Our clients are amazing. They run marathons, participate in the Paralympics, cycle races in tandem.

“The dogs don’t participate with them, but they do assist them to get to and from their training fields and clubs,” says Pieter van Niekerk, the association’s head of public relations and a guide dog owner.

“Then there is the unwavering companionship that the dogs offer to their owners. Their presence breaks down social barriers and opens up the door for conversation and interaction with people who would normally feel awkward around a person with a disability.

“It’s the way we were taught growing up. ‘Don’t stare, don’t look’ whenever you saw someone with a disability. People are naturally drawn to an animal. Although it does pose its challenges when you are trying to get somewhere and you are stopped every two minutes because someone wants to say hi to your dog, it’s still a wonderful experience to have so many people show an interest in you rather than shy away and say ‘ag, shame’.

“Everyone goes to work, goes shopping, enjoys quality time with friends and family at places like restaurants and other attractions. The dogs are trained to be able to assist our clients with getting on with their daily life in a safe and efficient manner.

“We have a client who is employed by a large company in Sandton. He travels from Centurion on the Gautrain every day to work and back. His only assistant is his guide dog.”

The biggest work the association does, though, is not with dogs, but with humans, through its College of Orientation and Mobility. It provides training to people to become orientation and mobility practitioners to go into townships and rural areas.

“The orientation and mobility practitioners are trained at our Seta- registered institute and qualify with an NQF Level 5 diploma. These practitioners teach visually impaired people life skills such as cooking, cleaning, dressing themselves, identifying items such as money, route-finding and cane skills,” says Sands.

“One of the practitioners who operates in rural areas came across a young boy who was visually impaired. His parents would keep him in a crib locked inside the house while they were at work during the day, hoping to keep him safe. After a few months of working with the practitioner, the little boy was able to safely find his way around his house, go outside and even play with friends.”

Leigh de Beaufort, the head of kennels 
and puppy raising at the SA Guide 
Dog Association, cuddles a week-old Labrador puppy.


Children on the low-level autism disorder spectrum have also made immense progress after receiving support dogs.

“Where they would typically hide away from any interaction and not make eye contact with or speak to anyone, they become only too happy to tell anyone interested in listening about their dog. We have even had a case where a child that had never spoken a word by the age of 7 started speaking to his dog,” says Sands.

The association follows a responsible breeding programme at Onderstepoort, Pretoria, using imported semen from the US to artificially inseminate its carefully-selected brood bitches.

From birth to graduation, all dogs undergo extensive screening and testing for any possible health issues, such as hip or elbow dysplasia and allergies, and follow a rigid maintenance programme to ensure each dog has a perfect bill of health when they graduate as a working dog.

The process, including training, runs into hundreds of thousands of rand which is entirely met by the association - the qualifying client pays a nominal amount of R5 to activate the contract between the association and the new owner.

The association places strict requirements on owning a dog to ensure it remains happy, healthy and safe in service. It remains part of the dog’s life, visiting at least once a year - even beyond its retirement.

The puppies are kept on the premises, in the “puppy block”, from birth until 8 weeks, when they are placed with volunteer puppy raisers who keep them at their homes, socialising them and taking them to the association every week for training. At around 16 months, the dogs go back for four to eight months of “boarding school”, being released back to the puppy raisers on weekends.

Service dogs, guide dogs and autism support dogs are trained to perform different tasks. During the advanced stages of training, the dogs will be trained to perform special activities based on the particular requirements their possible new owner may have.

The working dogs do more than just assist a person to move around safely or retrieve, fetch, push, pull and open and close things - they are also trusted companions, which may be why autism support dogs have made life-changing differences to their young owners.

Once a dog is qualified and has passed all training requirements, they are matched with the possible new owner. If the match is successful, the handover process begins. For two weeks, the new owner will stay at the training centre, culminating in a graduation ceremony attended by puppy raisers, trainers, graduates, sponsors, friends and family. The handover training continues at the client’s home.

It is 66 years since Gladys Evans, after training in the UK, returned to South Africa with the country’s first guide dog and started the association, to try to give every blind person the same gift she had received, that changed her life.

“We could do so much more, we need to do so much more, but we are wholly dependent on donations,” says executive director Vernon Tutton. “The more we get, the more dogs we can breed and train, the further we can reach out to the visually impaired and the more lives we can change.”

For more, visit The SA Guide Dog Association.

The Saturday Star