A new leash on life

Posted on 12 October 2014

Dogs have been helping blind people find their way for decades. But did you know the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind also trains service dogs to assist people with other disabilities?
Words Brent Smith

Best friends forever
Meet Heidi Vollmer and her best friend Olivia, a seven-year-old golden retriever. Heidi broke her back and neck in a car accident in 1984 and, although she had to face the prospect of using a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she was lucky to avoid total paralysis. Eleven years later, Andrew Barnes, then working for the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind (SAGA), mentioned that a service dog could make her life much easier.

The two met by chance at the café Heidi owned in Cape Town. ‘He came in every day for breakfast. One day he said: “You don’t need to reach for that fork on the floor. You could have a dog to do it.”
Being an animal lover, I loved the idea.’

Heidi became the first person in a wheelchair in the Western Cape to receive a service dog. She was interviewed for eligibility in February 1995 and received her first dog, Wizard, that October.
Wizard’s loyal service came to an end when he reached retirement age. When a dog turns 10, their owner needs to get a veterinary health certificate, which tells SAGA how much longer the dog can work.
If the dog is going blind or deaf, or is developing mobility issues, he retires. Gimbal, Wizard’s successor, died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of five.
Enter Olivia, Heidi’s companion for the last five years.

Service… with a smile
So how have Olivia and her predecessors changed Heidi’s life? ‘Having a dog makes me a different person. I’m calmer, more sociable. It breaks down barriers in public. Instead of children staring at me or asking: “Mommy, why is she in a wheelchair?” they say: “Let’s go touch that dog!”. Then they see the person in the chair. It starts conversation.’

It turns out that, like many other dogs, Olivia loves car rides. The golden retriever likes walks, too. ‘Having a dog means even if you’re feeling down you have to get up and go.’ And because Olivia sticks to Heidi ‘like glue’, she never feels lonely. ‘Olivia reads me like a book. She’s the best psychologist!’When she’s not moonlighting as a therapist, Olivia’s day job involves retrieving things – ‘a R5 coin, credit cards’ – and carrying objects to help Heidi, including her cellphone, the sprinkler attachment or pot-plant tubs. ‘Taking washing out of the machine is a game for her. And when I say “We’re going to the car” she runs for the garage and tugs on a lead to open the door.’

Ties that bind

Heidi spent 10 days in Joburg to train with her first dog. ‘You meet your dog on the second day and go out in public with him (or her) when you have a good relationship and can manage the commands.’
The owner is removed from their home environment for training so they can bond with their new friend,free of distraction. By the time they get home, they’re working as a team.
Retrievers like Olivia can be stubborn. ‘If they don’t want to work, you have to play the autocrat and insist they deliver,’ says Heidi. ‘But it’s not a matter of getting the right dog for the job; it’s a matter of getting the right dog for you.’

At your service
SAGA trains service dogs for people with physical impairments and mobility problems. These dogs can pick up dropped items, turn on lights and much more. SAGA also rears social dogs for people who are socially challenged and have a learning disability. Visit their website at www.guidedog.org.za if you’d like to enquire about getting an assistance dog.
In other parts of the world, you’ll find seizure-alert dogs for epileptics, psychiatric service dogs to assess your mood and remind you to take your medication, and dogs for diabetics that are trained to pick up on low blood sugar.

Love is blind
The most common assistance dogs in South Africa are guide dogs for the blind. Lynda Nielsen, 61, is partially sighted. She was born with a defect in one eye and subsequently lost her peripheral vision and depth perception. She also lost her independence. Lynda’s had her current guide dog, Fiela, since 2009. ‘Fiela takes me to the shops, the vet, the GP and the bus stop. If I need to go somewhere new, an instructor will visit and teach us the route.’

Blindness is legally defined according to visual acuity and field of vision. Dr Dylan Joseph, an ophthalmologist at Mediclinic Plettenberg Bay, explains: ‘Acuity of less than 6/60 in the better-seeing eye means that the person sees at six metres what a normal-sighted individual will see at 60 metres. And, with regards to visual fields, if your better-seeing eye has a field of vision less than 20 degrees, you’re legally blind.’

Being born blind, which is rare, means all other senses are heightened to accommodate for loss of vision. These patients adapt quickly. Going blind during your lifetime, however, has devastating psychosocial implications and is a massive adjustment a person who used to be able to see.There are several visual aids for partially sighted people. ‘Without Fiela, I’d be confined to my home and dependent on other people to help me,’ says Lynda.

A dog’s life (from the dog’s perspective)
Have you ever seen a blind person out and about with their guide dog and wondered how the pooch was trained?

Preschool (puppy walking)
Six weeks: I’m placed with a family. The best homes are those with one or two children, one or two other pets and a parent who doesn’t work.

  • My family names me and introduces me to car travel, busy shops, escalators, noisy streets and crowded pavements.
  • They take me to monthly obedience training sessions.

Big school (formal training)
One year: I go back to the SA Guide-Dogs Training Centre. There are two in South Africa, one in the Western Cape and the other in Gauteng – but if clients are unable to come to a centre, a trainer will go to them. It takes four to six months to train me.Basic trainers and mobility instructors train a batch of six dogs, individually, at a time.

  • We’re taught advanced obedienceand to walk in a straight line, in position, with the correct tension on the lead.
  • Early training is done at the centre and in quiet areas. As my schooling progresses, we move into busier areas.
  • We’re taught to stop at every step-down. Then we learn to do three turns: left, right and back.
  • Navigating obstacles is next.
  • During these weeks, our concentration improves, and we begin to ignore other people and other dogs.
  • Traffic work is the most important part. This training is left until the last month, when we learn to disobey a command and follow our instinct if needed.

I’m matched with an applicant most suited to me and I begin working.

Best guide dog breeds

Labradors, retrievers (or crosses between the two) and German shepherds; preferably female.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

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3 Responses to “A new leash on life”

  1. Aileen Elizabeth Watson Botha says:

    Good Afternoon,

    Please can you advise me how we can apply for a service dog for my daughter who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She is 22 years old. A service dog would help her dramatically as she has very bad balance. If she turns the wrong way or someone bumps her, she ends up falling.

    We live in Windhoek, Namibia. We have not such facilities here. Caitlin has fought her entire life to do everything and this would make her life so much easier. She loves animals and is responsible but we need a dog that can help her but also keep her calm when she becomes stressed.

    • Nuraan Cader says:

      Good day, Thank you for your enquiry. Please email help@mediclinic.co.za with your enquiry, contact details and hospital name so that we can investigate and give you feedback. Kind regards, The Mediclinic Southern Africa team

  2. Berenice Williams says:

    Hi. I am getting very hard of hearing and 6 months ago adopted a dog (whippet shape) who is now 6 months old. I have given him basic training (I live on a game conservancy north east of PTA.. My vet says he has the temperament to be a service dog. I would like to train him to be consistent when vehicles draw up to my plot (sometimes he gives a low growl and moves towards the door. I also need him to alert me to when the various phones ring as I frequently miss important phone calls. I know there is no Hearing dog centres but perhaps You can put me in touch with someone who could help me. Pta is easy for me to get to and I can always stay at my son’s in J’burg.

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