Association plans for 20 more guide dogs in Singapore by 2018

Guide dog mobility trainer Zara Linehan and Ria the guide dog. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

Guide dogs are still a rare sight in Singapore. But if the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind (GDAB) has its way, we can expect to see many more of the pooches leading the visually impaired around.

The GDAB is aiming to bring 20 more guide dogs into Singapore within the next two years. The association feels the ground is ready and that Singaporeans are now more receptive to the canines, said Alvin Ching, a community partnership executive at GDAB.

“We have made great progress in the past two years. We even get organisations like shopping malls asking us what they can do to make their venues more guide dog friendly,” said Ching, who spoke to Yahoo Singapore at a community event in Woodlands last Sunday (10 July).

Video by Jeremy Ho 

Ever since Singapore’s first guide dog was brought here in 1982, it has been a long process of educating the public about their role.  As recently as last April, guide dog owner Cassandra Chiu was involved in a high profile altercation at a Zara store, when she alleged that she was verbally abused by a security guard after trying to enter the store with her dog.

But in January, the GDAB saw the number of guide dog-friendly establishments increase to 70 this year, an increase of about 50 per cent from 2013. Ching noted, “We need the dogs to be on the street, to get people used to them. If you see them more, you won’t find that it is such a big deal anymore.”

The education of Ria

Ria at a recent GDAB event in Causeway Point. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

There are currently eight guide dogs in Singapore. The latest is Ria, a 15-month old Labrador retriever from Melbourne, who is almost ready to start work. The dog has been training for a month.

“Ria’s like that kid at school who’s scared to get things wrong, and who’s got all the ability, but just needs nurturing to get that confidence going,” said Zara Linehan, 34, who is currently the only guide dog mobility instructor in Singapore.

Ria is only the second locally-trained guide dog after Jordie, a labrador who completed training under Linehan last year.  

Linehan puts the dog through its paces five days a week, two hours a day. Ria is taught to walk in a straight line, to stop at kerbs, and to locate objectives such as lifts or MRT gantries. Most importantly, Ria is taught intelligent disobedience.

The instructor, who has eight years of experience, explained, “If we’re about to cross the road and I tell her ‘forward’ but there’s a car coming, she needs to have the confidence to disobey me and not go forward.”

When her training is completed in six weeks’ time, Ria will be paired up with a visually impaired client. He or she must also be trained to handle Ria, which will typically take three weeks.

“There’s a lot of responsibilities (when you have a guide dog),” noted Linehan, who has trained about 50 dogs. “But those that do want to take that on, then they get a fluidity of mobility that you simply cannot get with a cane.”

Guiding the guides

Linehan puts Ria through her paces at a community event. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

From birth to completion, it costs the GDAB $35,000 to import and train just one dog. Guide dogs in Singapore are sourced from Australia-based Guide Dogs Victoria.

The dogs are picked from birth, and usually come from a lineage of guide dogs. While labradors and golden retrievers are most commonly used, breeds such as German shepherds and Dobermans have also been used. Breeders look for calm and responsive puppies, as well as curious ones.

The dogs are sent to professional puppy raisers for the first year of their lives before going to training school. They are taught not to bark or bite, as well as to relieve themselves on command. After the training period, they typically work for the first decade of their lives before being adopted by their handlers or other owners.

As many as a third of the canines may be found to be unsuitable for the work, medical or behavioural reasons. Drawing on her previous experience in the UK, Linehan said such dogs may be re-deployed as sniffer or hearing dogs, or given up for adoption.

Don’t touch the dog

“Admire from afar if you want, but just leave them to it,” is Linehan’s advice to members of the public who see a guide dog on the street. The mother of two noted that the pooch needs to concentrate on its guiding role, and may put its handler in danger if it is distracted by people touching it, calling it or offering it food.  

“I’m so proud of my dogs when someone says hello to them and they completely ignore them. That’s when I’m at my happiest,” said Linehan with a smile.