Cheryl grooms dogs into good guides

Guide dog mobility instructor Cheryl Robertson with guide dogs Ultra, left, and Dino.

Cheryl Robertson loves dogs and helping people – she’s brought those two things together in her 27 years as a guide-dog mobility instructor.

The 50-year Claremont resident did a three year course at the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind in Johannesburg – it included an apprenticeship and in-house training.

“The qualification is internationally recognised because we belong to the International Guide Dog Federation,” she says.

After the second year of study, you qualify as a guide-dog trainer; it takes a further year to become guide-dog mobility instructor, she explains.

Cheryl now manages the organisation’s Claremont branch.

Someone beginning their apprenticeship to become a guide-dog trainer will spend part of their time at the main centre in Johannesburg, she says.

“The dog breeding gets done there, and the apprentices also observe a class where blind people are trained with their new guide dogs,” she says.

Dogs are 14 months old when they begin their training that can take four to six months, says Cheryl.

“The dogs are taught to walk under control, to stop at road crossings, avoid obstacles, walk in a straight line and to ignore distractions in the environments like food on pavements and other dogs.”

Another part of the process is matching the guide dog with an owner.

“They need to be comfortable with each other,” says Cheryl, “and this is very important for safety, and when the candidate first comes on class, we teach them, without the dog, how to control the dogs, what the different words, turns and commands are.”

The candidates spend two weeks training with their new helpers at the Claremont branch, then the trainers work with the new owners and the guide dogs at the owners’ homes for two weeks.

“It’s rewarding when a person and dog are able to get out there independently and be able to walk with confidence and do things that they would not have been brave enough to do by themselves,” Cheryl says.

She has a Jack Russell-cross called Frodo; two retired guide dogs she adopted, Kodi, a Labrador, and Tiffany, a golden retriever; a cat called Sophie; and a tortoise called Angus.

When she isn’t working she enjoys taking her Jack Russell to obedience classes, walking her dogs in the forest and going to markets.

The South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind is hosting a Women’s Day webinar fund-raiser tomorrow, Friday August 7, called Beauty, Books and Biscuits. Guests will be able to get beauty tips from a professional at Estée Lauder, and hear from authors in the guide-dogs community, including Dr Amit Patel, Lois Strachan and Tersia van der Westhuizen. A retail chain will also give cooking tips. Tickets cost R50 per person through Quicket. Click here to book your tickets.