Lying quietly by her handler’s feet, Clare waited patiently as voices and laughter filled the conference room at the headquarters of Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd. It was only at the mention her name did she wag her tail slightly and even then, nothing could get her full attention like a command from her handler.
Founded in 2006, Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of people with visual impairment. The social service charity offers a range of services such as the Orientation & Mobility Programme and Guide Dogs Programme. Equipping the visually impaired with the ability to travel independently and safely, the Orientation & Mobility Programme is implemented by qualified specialists, who teach people with visual impairment to do so with their remaining senses and mental mapping. Under the Guide Dogs Programme, guide dogs are paired with people with visual impairment, to enhance their mobility, safety and emotional well-being.
Clare, one of the six guide dogs at Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd
With sparkling brown eyes, light golden coat and a playful yet disciplined personality, three-year-old Clare is one of the six guide dogs in Singapore. “Clare can be very… manja,” smiled Simone Oh, Orientation & Mobility Specialist at Guide Dogs Singapore. “She is not as excitable as the others, but every guide dog has different personalities. For instance, we have a guide dog with a dislike for drain covers and actively avoids them,” Simone laughed.
Simone Oh, Orientation & Mobility Specialist at Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd
However, a closer observation will reveal the similar traits that guide dogs share. Chosen for their endearing and eager-to-please personalities, guide dogs are usually a mix between Labradors and Golden Retrievers. “They are gentle in appearance and are also easily accepted by the public,” Simone explained. “All guide dogs are trained in an Australian-based training centre. The two-year training journey begins during the puppy stage and certified guide dogs will then be matched with potential guide dog users.”
Hong Sen and Clare
While the process seems straightforward, people with visual impairment have to be carefully assessed before they are qualified for the Guide Dogs Programme – one of which involves having to undergo the Orientation & Mobility Programme and to be confident with travelling independently with the white cane. 22-year-old Chia Hong Sen, is one of them.
A student at the Singapore Institute of Management, Hong Sen mastered his Orientation & Mobility skills under the guidance of Simone. “I was born with retinal dystrophy,” explained Hong Sen. “I can make out light, shadows and big objects but that is pretty much it.” It was only upon the recommendation of his doctor did Clare come into the picture.
Clare with one of her favourite toys
Running his hand gently over Clare’s coat, Hong Sen smiled as he recounted his first impression of the Labrador. “There was some initial hesitation because we (his family and him) have never owned a dog. But Clare is very quiet and well-behaved. When she is off-duty, she is very laidback and can sleep for hours. While Clare may be serious, she can be affectionate and asks for hugs during grooming sessions.”
Hong Sen, Clare and Simone
As with all clients of the Guide Dogs Programme, all guide dogs and their users will undergo training sessions. Besides learning to command Clare, Hong Sen had to attend practice sessions with her, to familiarise Clare with his daily routes. “A guide dog acts as the pair of eyes for its user. Unlike the white cane, a guide dog is capable of detecting obstacles from a distance. When crossing the road, a person with visual impairment can, under the lead of a guide dog, walk in a straight line and avoid traffic,” Simone explained.
Hong Sen and Clare, with Simone, having a training session
Is a guide dog more beneficial than a white cane? Hong Sen begged to differ. “It depends on the situation. While Clare gets me to the destination quicker, the white cane allows me to have a better sense of the environment. With a guide dog, you have to find a comfortable walking pace together and to trust it to avoid obstacles. But I guess now with Clare, I have become more popular at school,” the undergraduate laughed.
Guest of honour Mr. Sam Tan, participating at White Cane Community Day, Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd’s flagship community outreach event.
Smiling, Hong Sen recalled one of his most memorable moments with Clare. “It was one of the last assessments we had to undergo and it was based on my school route. There was a carnival that day and there were many booths and barriers. Clare navigated through the obstacles and crowd perfectly – that really amazed me.”
In addition to its Guide Dogs Programme, Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd also aims to raise public awareness and acceptance towards the working canines. Some of its over 250 supporters include shopping malls, food establishments, hospitals and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
Guide dog teams at White Cane Community Day
From left: Jordie with Gary (his handler) and Melba with Dennis (her handler)
By building up the life skills of people with visual impairment, Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd dedicates itself to improving the quality of life of its clients. Support the good cause of Guide Dogs Singapore by visiting its fundraising page at guidedogs.give.asia or www.giving.sg/gds#monthly. One-time and monthly recurring donations are available with 250%* tax relief possible. For more information, visit www.guidedogs.org.sg.
*Clubpets would like to clarify that the tax relief amount is 250% instead of 25% that is stated in Issue 70 of the magazine. Images courtesy of Guide Dogs Singapore Ltd