Cassandra Chiu has a “heartbreaker” following her around, day in and day out.
Said “heartbreaker” hails from Australia, and was specially match-made to her as they were both suited to a fast-paced city lifestyle.
The visually-impaired Cassandra and her partner are usually followed by a long trail of curious eyes as they make their way around town.
Some were truly curious; some were hostile; most were concentrated on distancing themselves from her -- they swerved sharply away from her, even if it meant pushing into someone else or walking sideways.
But Cassandra was oblivious to them all throughout the two hours Yahoo! Singapore followed her from her home in Bukit Panjang to her office in Tanglin. We travelled on public transport.
What Cassandra does respond to, are the delighted whispers of “Esme!” which occur every few minutes.
Cassandra is a psychotherapist by profession, and mother and girly-girl at all other times. She suffers from Stargardt Disease,which leads to progressive vision loss.
Esme is her guide dog, the magnet of stares and the above mentioned “heartbreaker”.
“She melts hearts everywhere she goes,” Cassandra said when asked to describe Esme. “Even people who don’t like dogs, like my mum, are in love with her.”
A working dog
A guide dog is, above all, a working dog.
They have to adhere to a strict diet and mealtimes, and have to be ever-focused on the safety of their handler for many hours a day. They do not lead the pampered lives of many pets, and are bred and trained to serve humans.
Yet, they are an often-misunderstood bunch.
Cassandra recounts an incident where they had a Slurpee thrown over them.
“I didn’t know what was happening at first. It was really horrible. No one deserves such abuse,” she said.
Cassandra is confronted with abuse — both physical abuse and name-calling -- often.
Many Singaporeans think that animals are ‘dirty’ and should not be allowed on public transport and in restaurants, she said.
They do not understand that Esme is not a pet dog, and far from being a nuisance, guide dogs actually help humans, she added.
She said that society still has a long way to go when it comes to tolerating guide dogs, and also accepting and appreciating their value.
Esme, the first guide dog brought in by the Guide Dog Association of the Blind, arrived in 2011.
The following year, a second guide dog was brought in from Australia.
Not every visually impaired person is eligible to take on a guide dog. A potential handler has to be assessed first, to make sure his lifestyle, environment and personality are suitable.
The GDAB hopes to be able to successfully team up one pair each year.
A new leash of life
With the dog, Cassandra slipped through the mid-day crowd, easily blazing the way ahead as this Yahoo! Singapore reporter trailed behind.
The amazing agility, however, is not to be taken for granted. Before she got Esme, moving around was extremely time-consuming, as she used a white cane to suss out the surroundings. She shared that this method was far less effective than having a guide dog.
“Previously, I had to take great pains not to knock into people or things with the cane. Now, it’s easier to navigate, and safer for me too. I call Esme my ‘sports car’; it feels like I’m moving twice as quickly with her,” Cassandra said.
Esme wears a harness when she is working, and is not supposed to be petted or spoken to by anyone other than Cassandra during this period, lest she gets distracted.
However, when people recognise them, Cassandra is friendly and cheerful. She readily chats with those who ask if she would like help getting from one place to another, and is happy to let them give Esme a pat if the dog is not helping with navigation.
While Cassandra is able to get from place on her own, having memorised routes and landmarks, Esme acts as a guard. The specially bred-and-trained Labrador retriever uses her body to block Cassandra from any unforeseen obstacles, such as cars overhead branches.
“She’s like my eyes,” Cassandra said. “My safety lies in her four paws, so she cannot afford to be anything but focused.”
Once upon a time
She recalls a time when she was out with Esme in Singapore, fresh after a month-long stint in Australia when they were introduced to each other and practised walking around. They were at a familiar junction and Cassandra was about to cross the road when Esme blocked her.
It annoyed Cassandra, until she realised there was a reversing car that could have hit her if not for Esme picking up on it.
“It took time for us to build up trust, and now, we are symbiotic, she is a part of me,” Cassandra said.
Esme was stoic throughout the day as she led Cassandra around, lying down when she had a moment to rest, eyeballing people who pass.
Upon reaching Cassandra’s office and having her working harness taken off, however, the pooch turns into a ball of energy, tugging on her chew toy and pulling Cassandra, seated on her office chair, around.
“She plays for about five minutes, then she goes take a nap, as we have very long days during which we are active, and it gets pretty tiring,” Cassandra explained.
As predicted, Esme soon curls up at Cassandra’s feet, the very image of a happy but dog-tired creature.
Other than the GDAB, another association that helps the blind is The Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), which also has programmes for the blind. The association also tries to promote the welfare of the visually handicapped in Singapore.
Some activities include soundball tennis - where players rely on their hearing instead of sight- and the Dining in the Dark programme, which arranges for diners to have a meal in complete darkness to give them a sense of what being unable to see is like.
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