Guide-dog training adapts to a Covid world

Billy is a guide dog in training.

The South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind has started training new apprentice guide dogs while adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like many other non-profits, the association, which has a regional branch in Claremont, was hit hard by the pandemic, and it was closed for about two months last year during the hard lockdown.

Lindsey Concer, the fund-raising manager at the association’s Claremont branch, said they would likely feel the impact of the lockdown for years to come as many fund-raisers had to be cancelled.

On Wednesday January 13, the association started training guide dogs Elva, who is 18 months old, and Billy, who is 22 months old.

“Elva and Billy are a little older than most dogs who usually start training around 14-18 months, though if not for the pandemic they most likely would have begun training a few months ago,” Ms Concer said.

These dogs have joined the ranks at the Claremont training centre with trainers Cheryl Robertson and Megan Reid.

“Over the next six months, they will learn the skills they need to qualify as guide dogs,” Ms Concer said.

Once they complete their training, they will help blind people navigate their world.

For the first two weeks of training at the Claremont training centre, the dogs are taught obedience skills and they practice walking on various surfaces and learn to use steps and walk in a straight line.

The training that follows is now very different because of Covid-19. In the past, the trainers took the dogs to malls to practise on escalators and onto crowded pavements to help them navigate obstacles.

“Both of these practices have been stopped for now in order to maintain physical distancing,” Ms Concer said.

The dogs are looked after by volunteers, who fetch them after training, and the organisation ensures that everyone is wearing masks during the handover and that the dogs’ leads are sterilised.

Through the association’s Fluffy Puppy Club fund-raising drive, people can pay an annual or monthly fee to be entered into monthly draws to win up to R20 000 and an annual draw for R100 000.

Visit guidedog.org.za, email LindseyC@guidedog.org.za or call 021 674 7395 for more information.