Imagine, for a moment, that you were to lose your sight. Imagine the small things that we take for granted and do totally without thinking every single day – making a cup of tea, checking our e-mail, or popping out to the shops to buy milk. Now imagine doing all that without your eyesight. None of these are particularly difficult or complicated for sighted people – but for blind people, everything comes with an extra challenge. How do you know when to stop pouring the tea so that the cup does not overflow? What if you miss the kettle’s handle and burn yourself? E-mails become an impossibility, unless you can afford the software to convert text to speech (and vice versa, if you want to reply to your messages!). And to go to the shop is to venture into a world where you cannot see kerbs, lampposts, pedestrian crossings or cars. A guide dog may not be able to check your e-mails for you, but some can even help you make tea, and all can assist blind people in getting out of their homes and regaining their independence.
Dogs supporting their blind owners have a surprisingly long history, but it was only after World War I that the Austrian War Department started to train blinded war veterans to walk with guide dogs. In 1923, the first formal centre for training guide dogs was established in Potsdam, Germany.. In 1929 Morris and Dorothy established the first Guide Dog School in the USA in Morristown, New Jersey, and the UK established their own Guide-Dog Association in 1931. In 1953, Gladys Evans founded the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind (SAGA) – still the only guide dog training school in Africa.
All guide dogs in South Africa are bred from specially selected stock and breeds that have shown an aptitude for guiding. Their actual training takes around 6 months, but SAGA is responsible for the puppy from the moment it is born and have a number of special “puppy raisers” who raise the pups until they are ready to begin training. Formal guide dog training can only commence at around 12 – 18 months, depending on the breed. During the six months of formal training, each dog has up to three 40 minute training sessions per day day. At the end of the formal training period the dog is carefully matched to a blind or visually impaired person who has been on SAGA’s waiting list. The entire, labour- intensive process takes on average 18 months per dog.
Once dogs have been assigned to their new owners, classes of 3 ‘students’ then come to the SAGA Training Centre for a 2 week period while they are trained in all aspects of guiding, handling and care of the dog. Each student is accompanied home by a trainer for a further week to 10 day aftercare period where intensive individual training is given in the visually impaired person’s home environment. The average working life of a Guide dog is 8 – 10 years in which SAGA is always on hand to provide support and advice and in the case of a retired dog, SAGA also provide Guide dog owners with a replacement dog.
On average, SAGA trains 55 dogs per year and although many of these are traditional guide dogs for blind or visually-impaired people, they also train social and service dogs. Service dogs are trained to assist children and adults with disabilities other than visual impairment, eg. people confined to wheelchairs. For example, they can be trained to pull and push open doors, turn on and off lights, push lift buttons, or fetch things on command. These dogs not allow disabled people to regain a measure of independence, but also provide companionship and emotional benefits.
Training a guide dog from birth is a process of 18 months or more and is estimated to cost in the region of R80,000 per dog. Multiply that by 55 and you get to costs of R4,4 million per year. Because SAGA want a guide dog to be available to any person regardless of their financial position, the blind person is asked to contribute only R100.00 towards their board and lodging and R5.00 to purchase the dog. Despite the vital role that they fulfil, SAGA do not receive any form of Government assistance for the role they carry out, and all their funds are raised from the public by way of donations, sale of Christmas cards, collections and sponsorships and direct mail appeals.
Having witnessed first hand what a difference a trained guide dog can make to a blind friend’s life, we selected SA Guide-Dog Association for the Blind as our chosen charity for 2014. We will be holding an auction at the end of the Indaba, auctioning off all kinds of desirable foodie items and experiences, and ALL proceeds will go to SAGA – no hidden admin fees or other dodgy dealings. We are looking for luxury food hampers, kitchen gadgets, cases of wine, restaurant meals/vouchers, spa treatments, hotel stays, signed cookbooks, wine tasting experiences, foodie classes or anything else that might make a food blogger’s heart beat faster. If you, your company, or anybody you know would be able to donate an item to the auction, please do get in touch with Colleen (colleen AT foodbloggerindaba DOT com) or Jeanne (emailcooksister AT gmail DOT com) to discuss. And of course, if you want to attend the 2014 Indaba to take part in the auction and enjoy the incredible line-up of speakers and workshops on offer, buy your ticket now!
The South African Guide-Dogs for the Blind Association is a registered charity in South Africa (charity number NPO 00 758). Please click through to their website (http://www.guidedog.org.za/); “like” their page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SAGuideDogsAssociationForTheBlind) or follow them on Twitter (@SAGuide_Dogs).