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Still a pup but taking her human to places — as the first guide dog fully trained in Singapore

SINGAPORE: She must learn to turn left or right at the command, avoid obstacles in her path and even pee when instructed, before qualifying for the work she was born to do: Lead the blind.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for Eve, the little Labrador-golden retriever mix, is to ignore the common mynah.

“Birds are a huge distraction to Eve — especially bold, cheeky birds like mynahs that come up to her,” said Christina Teng, Eve’s instructor from social service agency Guide Dogs Singapore (GDS). And especially as Eve was bred in Japan, where the environment was quieter.

Eve is part of GDS’ new plan for improving access to guide dogs for the visually impaired in Singapore. In a first, she was brought here before her formal guide dog training and certification. She was one and a half years old.

HOW A GUIDE DOG WORKS

Whether assisted by a cane or a guide dog, the visually impaired usually navigate with a mental map to guide them.

There is a song that encapsulates how they get around. In the American drama series, This Is Us, a blind toddler sings his way to the park: “Twelve steps to the sidewalk, and then we make a turn to the left … Stop at the curb, hop that dog turd … And listen for the cars.”

With the cane, Teng said, its users must feel for any obstacles in their path, or touch a familiar landmark, like a traffic light post, to know where they are heading.

The guide dog, on the other hand — as a second pair of eyes — can see the post and, when given the command, take its handler there while avoiding obstacles along the way.

“Dogs can see and know where they’re heading and make the decision to move you (along) the most efficient path,” Teng said. “In a sense, they have to be problem-solvers and navigate for the handlers.”

But to do that, Eve had to first learn to concentrate, which seemed like a tall order when CNA Insider first met the puppy. Like most pups at her age, she was curious, energetic and, sometimes, insatiable.

A distracted guide dog is “very dangerous”, not because the dog might bite or bark, but because it is a hazard to the handler, said Teng. “It may not notice the obstacle … ahead, and the handler could either fall or knock into something.”

To remain focused at work, Eve also had to learn to pee at a fixed schedule and to go when asked, usually before setting off on a route.

When leading her handler from point to point, she must not divert from her path, unlike regular pet dogs that like to wander off for a sniff or find a spot to pee.

“Guide dogs in training (must) be reinforced with all these skills on a daily basis, especially in the early part of training, so that it becomes like a natural reaction,” said Teng.

At the eighth, 12th and 16th week of training, Eve was put to the test and had to lead a blindfolded Teng. It was to evaluate how ready the dog would be to work with a visually impaired handler.

She did not escape the exam stress. At eight weeks, it was clear to Teng that while Eve had adequate knowledge of what to do, she lacked confidence and was bothered by passers-by.

She slowed her pace when unsure, which made it difficult to follow her lead, Teng said. But it was nothing an extra week’s practice could not fix.

It took around four months of work before Eve could officially graduate to being a fully certified guide dog.

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NOT YOUR REGULAR PET DOG

With the rigorous training regime, it is “quite tough” when the team faces “pushback” in public spaces, said Teng.

Awareness of guide dogs is better compared to a decade ago, she added, but she is still questioned from time to time by security or members of the public when she enters indoor spaces.

This is despite legislation permitting guide dogs in food establishments and on public transport.

When CNA Insider sought permission to film Teng and Eve in some establishments such as shopping centres, concerns were raised about whether the dog would bark at people or get fur stuck in the escalators.

This stems from the public often conflating a pet and a working dog, said Teng. “There’s a whole lot of background work that’s done prior to even putting guide dogs in training in a public access area,” she pointed out.

For a start, guide dog puppies are bred from a line of dogs of a calm temperament, with a “lack of anxiety (at) environmental stimulus”, or “sound shyness”. This means they are not reactive to loud sounds like thunder or the vacuum cleaner.

They are typically Labradors or golden retrievers. The puppies are fostered so that they can grow up to be used to a home environment and receive basic obedience training from the families.

Once they are of age for guide dog school — usually 12 to 15 months — the puppies are assessed on their temperament and reaction to stimulus.

The selection process is strict: Among a litter of pups bred as working dogs, about 40 per cent eventually make it to the end of training, said Teng.

Those that do not pass will be trained as other types of assistance or therapy dogs or, in the last resort, put up for adoption as pets.

Ultimately, the training is for the clients’ safety, she noted.

There is even a module that involves driving a car towards the dog and handler, and the dog is expected to “intelligently disobey” the handler’s command to move forward. This is to prepare for a situation where the handler is unable to listen for traffic clearly.

WATCH: Goldador puppy learning to be a guide dog (19:38)

A SENSE OF FREEDOM

When someone is interested to have a guide dog, Teng will assess the person’s suitability based on his or her eyesight, lifestyle, living environment and work environment.

“I need to know whether they’re independent enough to manage themselves, then I can see if they’re ready to manage a dog in their life,” she said.

A localised training programme makes a big difference to how well Teng gets to know the dog’s personality, abilities and quirks and thus how well she can find a match on GDS’ waiting list.

For Eve, her match would be a fast walker and a firm hand to manage her mischievous side. That person is Thomas Chan.

“It’s like a marriage,” Teng said. “You start with a match, but there’ll be habits you may have to work out between the two of you … things you need to take note of, changes that need to be made. But as you persistently work on it, you’ll see that relationship grow.”

Eve, now two and a half years old, can take Chan from his four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio to the train station and then to Sembawang MRT station, their pick-up point to go to his workplace.

They have run into a kink once in a while, like being unable to find the fare gantries in the train station or the escalators to the platform, and Chan would reach out to members of the public for help.

When their final training session rolled around, Eve was signed over to him officially. He picked up one of her front paws and waved goodbye to Teng. One word described how he felt about starting this journey with his new pal: “Finally!”

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