Teaching a City (Pietermaritzburg) about Guide Dogs
The Natal Witness, Fri, 29 Dec 2006 By Laura Melville.
Pietermaritzburg has a lot to learn about the etiquette of working canines, writes LAURA MELVILLE.
If you ever wanted to shake a dog by his paw, that dog would be Hudson. Robin Giles and Hudson are a regular sight in the Montrose area (Pietermaritzburg).
The two-year-old black Labrador is one half of a one-man-and-his-dog team that has undertaken to educate the Pietermaritzburg public and local businesses on the etiquette of accommodating guide dogs.
It has been a tiring year but the duo is beginning to enjoy a considerable improvement in people's perceptions of their needs.
Hudson has only being living in the city just under a year, his owner, retired optometrist Robin Giles, had run his practice in Pietermaritzburg for 35 years before being forced to close shop in 2000 due to declining sight caused by retinitis pigmentosa.
As one of only four guide dogs in the city, Hudson has had to endure a range of reactions from incomprehension for his and his master's needs to blind disregard. The two have been refused entry into shops, have encountered rudeness and Hudson has been dangerously distracted, putting his master in danger.
So, what should you do if you encounter Hudson and Giles?
Well, for one thing, don't call out to Hudson or even stroke him. "We once walked past a house that was opened for viewing and were trying to cross the road when a group of people called Hudson. I could hear a car coming the other way and I had to say, 'Leave it!'" In the U.S., adds Giles, distracting a working guide dog results in a fine.
Unfortunately, it's not just people who distract Hudson, who, like all of us, has his weaknesses. His love for food and ability to act as a canine Hoover is a trait shared with all Labs. "Never go for a walk on rubbish day," warns Giles, who has experienced Hudson's distracted Hoovering of spilt treats from black rubbish bags.
Animals provide another lure, especially the barking of strange dogs, the investigation of which Hudson finds hard to fight.
"The moment that a guide dog is distracted and not looking where he is going, he will walk his master into something," says Giles, who wryly acknowledges that the year has been a learning curve.
Hudson's training equips him to walk his master from their Montrose home to the Cascades Centre, to cross robots and traffic circles, to "find the car" in a car park, travel on escalators and guide Giles through a crowded mall, where "Hudson takes me around obstacles but people must go around him."
Two city shopping centers now sport guide-dog signs as a result of Hudson's and Giles's personal education campaign.
"The signs are to create awareness among the security guards, who have not been trained to deal with guide dogs. They would stop my wife and I, and say, 'no dogs'. We'd tell them that Hudson is a guide dog and they'd just reiterate 'no dogs'."
Praise for the South African Guide Dogs Association.
Giles is full of praise for the South African Guide Dogs Association, which provides dogs at a cost of only R5, despite the fact that itís well-equipped centre in Johannesburg costs R6 million a year to run. Fifty dogs are released each year to new owners, who travel up to that city to undergo a course on working with guide dogs and to be matched with their new partners.
"Hudson was the only male in the group; he's also a big guy and I'm a big man. We got on fantastically from the start."
Giles makes the point that owners have to pass a medical test to qualify for a dog - "you have to be fit to get the benefit of the dog". During the training, the owners and their dogs travel various routes together, a trip that deliberately takes them past vegetable shops that spill over onto the pavement, outdoor cafe [acute] s and the forecourts of garages. The dogs are trained in verbal as well as arm commands, such as an exaggerated "forward!" swing from the shoulder, which is picked up in the dog's peripheral sight.
The centre also puts surprises in their way, with staff members driving across the pairs at bends. It is necessary preparation, for, during the same training, says Giles, a member of the public deliberately parked in front of the two, forcing them onto the road.
"How can he tell if cars are coming?", I ask him.
Giles has some peripheral vision but, for the rest, "it's like looking through Hilton mist".
"You soon get used to vehicle sound. If you're crossing the road, you press the button at the robot and listen for the cars going across to slow down and for those next to you to start revving, and then you walk forward. You have to walk very positively; if you hesitate too long, cars will drive in front of you."
Dogs are trained to stop should a car come around a corner.
While a master of the above, Hudson is also skilled in less active pursuits.
Each night he is "benched", tied next to Giles's bed - only very occasionally waking his master to meet the call of nature.
And, as a fully-fledged member of the Hilton Lions, who sponsored him, he can snore quietly through many a meeting, where he is considered one of the boys.
Published: 29 December 2006 (The Witness) and January 07, 2007 petWise.co.za