9 Things Every Singaporean Should know about Guide Dogs and the Visually Impaired
In case you didn’t know, Guide Dogs are visual mobility aids for people who are blind—an alternative for a walking cane. Guide Dogs undergo special training while their blind handlers also undergo training to move around with them.
According to estimates provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, there are some 300,000 people with sensory (blindness and deafness) and physical disabilities in our population currently. There are about 3,800 visually impaired registered with the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) and some 300 visually impaired registered with Guide Dogs Singapore.
However, with only eight guide dogs in Singapore at this point, it’s no wonder there is a general lack of understanding about Guide Dogs here. Many of us Singaporeans have never really seen—or perhaps even heard of—a Guide Dog in Singapore before. A large majority of the visually impaired here commonly use a white cane for mobility instead.
For the visually impaired, there are various benefits of having a Guide Dog as a mobility aid, instead of a cane. One major benefit is that a Guide Dog can help to avoid obstacles dynamically, quickly crafting a smooth path for its blind handler such that its blind handler may not even be aware of the obstacles in the first place! Think: maneuvering through moving obstacles, i.e. hordes of people, cyclists, traffic, etc—a Guide Dog can help guide its blind handler smoothly and efficiently. With a cane, the visually impaired person will usually have to encounter the obstacle and figure out on his or her own how to get around it.
However, it is not an option without challenges. For one, the fear of access issues faced by blind handlers and their Guide Dogs in Singapore is real. Being denied entry to a restaurant, bus or mall makes it more difficult for the visually impaired to get around, which is why some would rather forgo the option of having a Guide Dog entirely.
We get it—it’s not every day that we see a doggo taking the bus or riding the MRT with us. It’s a curious thing, and definitely very conspicuous. But hold your horses before flying to your own conclusions, it’s likely a Guide Dog! Here are 9 things all Singaporeans should know about Guide Dogs and the blind—to respect different needs of people in our community, and for a more inclusive society.
1. You can recognize Guide Dogs by this special harness.
All Guide Dogs in Singapore can be identified with this special yellow harness saying: “Guide Dog at Work” and “Do Not Distract”. Alas, many Singaporeans who are dog lovers would be curious or even excited to meet one and proceed to pet or fawn over the Guide Dog, thereby distracting it—which brings us to the next point…
2. Do not pet a Guide Dog.
Petting Guide Dogs while they are at work can be really distracting and stressful for them as they are focused on the safety of their blind handler. Just imagine someone fawning over you while you’re hard at work trying to get something done!
When Guide Dogs are out with their blind handlers, they are trained to be highly focused on their task of guiding their handler and keeping him or her safe. In fact, Guide Dogs learn to be responsible for a space two times as wide and up to three times as tall as themselves to keep their blind handlers safe.
So strictly no petting a Guide Dog while it’s on harness at work, even if your heart breaks a little.
3. Guide Dogs are not pets.
One of the most important things to recognize is that Guide Dogs are not pets, however cute they may be. A dog does not just magically become a Guide Dog overnight—it is specially bred, and certain dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Labradors and Golden Retrievers are suitable because of their intelligence, calm demeanour and good temperament.
Selected puppies which pass their Temperament Assessments are then exposed and socialised in various environments and settings for a year. These continuous exposures at a young age help them get used to the sights, sounds and crowds which they will encounter when they become a Guide Dog. These puppies then go back to Guide Dogs Singapore for guide dog skills training for nearly half a year. If they don’t meet the standards, they will be re-deployed to other “careers” such as therapy or assistance dogs.
4. Guide Dogs are allowed on MRTs and buses.
Guide Dog Clare guides her blind handler Hong Sen to the MRT door and helps him find a seat: Video via GDS.
Guide Dogs are allowed to commute with us on public transport under Singapore laws.
Although under Regulation 8(1), (3) of the Rapid Transit Systems Regulations (Cap 263A)—no person shall bring any animal or livestock into or upon any part of the railway premises—this does not apply to a Guide Dog accompanying any blind person. The Singapore government recognizes Guide Dogs as mobility aids to help the blind in our society and supports the use of Guide Dogs in public spaces under two laws: The Environmental Public Health Act and the Rapid Transit Systems Act. A Guide Dog is defined by them as a dog that is specially trained to aid a particular blind or visually impaired person.
Guide Dogs are also trained to be parked nicely under the MRT seat of its blind handler when commuting, so they don’t cause any inconvenience to other passengers.
5. Guide Dogs do not require a permit to enter public spaces such as eateries, malls etc.
Guide dogs are allowed access to all food establishments and public spaces in Singapore, such as cafes, restaurants and supermarkets under Regulation 29 (3) of the Environmental Public Health (Food Hygiene). Sadly, many food establishments in Singapore are not aware of this, and deny access to guide dogs and their blind handlers.
To combat this problem, GDS issues Guide Dog friendly decals for businesses, giving staff and the public the assurance that Guide Dogs are welcome at the establishment.
As dogs accessing public spaces can be a concern with the Muslim community, The Office of the Mufti Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has issued this advisory on Guide Dogs for clarification:
“If one walks past an area where the guide dog may have rested or walked past it, this falls under the concept of umumul balwa, and a person does not need to cleanse himself using the sertu method. Islam commands us to do good to all creatures, including animals. Hence, we are very much encouraged to be kind to those who need to use guide dogs to get around. Do not react in any way which may offend the owners of the guide dogs or hurt the dog itself.”
6. How are Guide Dogs trained to become a mobility aid to blind humans?
A Guide Dog to be begins its training as a young puppy, starting their journey at 8 to 10 weeks of age by being fostered out to sponsor families who volunteer to bring them up. During this time, sponsor families teach the puppies the basics of obedience, do and don’ts and support the puppies for vet care, food and toys. They will give the puppies the best possible headstart on their journey to becoming Guide Dogs.
During the first year, guide-dog-to-be puppies start learning all the sights, sounds and smells in the general environment. Sponsor families would also socialize them to places like supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, MRT gantries and public transport.
After one year, the puppies are returned to the Guide Dogs training centre for temperament assessments to determine if they are suitable to advance to the next level — guide dog training.
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We hope everyone knows by now that guide dogs are allowed to be on MRT according to the Rapid Transit Systems Act! If your friends are not aware, please help us spread the word! . As part of their basic obedience training, guide dogs learn how to settle with their handlers being seated in trains. Watch how our guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI) Christina, uses the command word "under" for the guide dog to go under the seat of the handler. This is to make sure the guide dog is parked nicely under the seat without causing any inconvenience to the other passengers!
Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI) Christina teaches Daisy the Guide Dog how to park herself nicely under an MRT seat, causing the least disturbance to commuters: Video via GDS.
For the next few months, puppies who are eligible to become Guide Dogs are put through Guide Dog training, working one-on-one with a mobility instructor. The dogs are taught things like straight line travel, stationary and dynamic obstacle avoidance, kerb and crossing stoppings, etc. The dogs also go through blindfold assessments with their instructors, a test to see if they are able to successfully guide their future visually impaired handler.
At two years of age, dogs who graduate from the training successfully become full-fledged Guide Dogs and will go on to be profiled and matched with a visually impaired person in a life-changing partnership!
In Singapore, guide-dog-to-be puppies are typically imported from Guide Dogs Victoria in Melbourne and are trained here in Singapore, with Guide Dogs Singapore.
7. How much is a Guide Dog in Singapore?
Due to the number of man hours put into breeding and training the puppies into guide dogs for a span of 18 to 24 months, the total cost of training a guide dog and its visually impaired handler is estimated at around $50,000. This cost is fully borned by Guide Dogs Singapore. Being a non-profit organization, GDS relies on donations from the public.
Guide dogs are available to visually impaired GDS clients at no cost. They need only to bear the daily maintenance cost of the guide dog (such as food, toys and care) however. Guide dog handlers also receive ongoing support from GDS’s mobility instructor at no cost.
8. Guide Dogs can do amazing things like finding the lift, escalator or the door for their blind handlers.
Did you know that a Guide Dog can help its blind handler do amazing things like locate a seat in the MRT of find the entrance of the mall or the lift in a building? Visually impaired handlers give commands to their Guide Dogs, such as “find the door”, to help them get around in their daily lives. They go through guide dogs skills training that can help its visually impaired handler to walk smoothly, avoiding obstacles dynamically.
With a cane, a blind person can only detect an obstacle when he is in front of it, while a guide dog can detect the obstacle from far and bring its blind handler around it.
Apart from obstacle avoidance, a guide dog is trained to stop at kerbs and stairs as a signal to its visually impaired handler, manoeuvre through crowds, walk in a straight line without sniffing. They also refuse commands that may lead both itself and its handler in danger, a Guide Dog training known as Intelligence Disobedience. Amazing, aren’t they??
The visually impaired handler and Guide Dog team also go through rigorous trainings with their Guide Dog Mobility Instructor to familiarize themselves with each other and common routes the blind handler takes on a daily basis, such as commuting to his or her place of work, wet market or supermarket.
9. Guide Dogs are extremely good-tempered; they don’t bark or bite.
Dogs who are calm, good-natured and focused are specifically handpicked to undergo Guide Dog training. As Guide Dogs undergo training from young, they have very mild and gentle temperaments, are well-mannered and do not cause any disturbances in public spaces. They are also trained not to bite and to prioritize the safety and well-being of their visually impaired handler.
All in all, Guide Dogs can help change the lives of their visually impaired handler, giving them mobility aid to navigate daily environments dynamically, be active in the community, explore the world, and pursue personal interests and growth. As fellow Singaporeans, we can do our part to be aware of these things, or even show our suppawt for these amazingly obedient dogs and the special bond they have with their blind handlers. Perhaps Guide Dogs will become more of a norm in Singapore as we all become aware and accepting of these hardworking professionals (:
This article is brought to you with love in collaboration with Guide Dogs Singapore as part of our #CelebrateDiversity initiative. We will also be launching two limited edition doggy face masks, named after two amazing Guide Dogs in Singapore soon! 100% of profits from the Orinda and Nixon 3-Layered Face Masks will go to Guide Dogs Singapore. Follow us on Instagram here to get the first dibs.
About Guide Dogs Singapore (GDS)
GDS is a charity registered with the National Council of Social Service and holds the Institute of Public Character (IPC) status. Their vision is to create an inclusive society where every blind and visually-impaired person is empowered for independent living. The GDS team is dedicated towards helping and supporting the blind achieve their fullest potential within the society via a range of rehabilitation programmes.
If you know of anyone with visual impairment who may benefit from GDS’s services, please contact the charity at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donate to help more visually impaired Singaporeans to have better quality of life via GDS’s fundraising campaign: https://www.giving.sg/gds/wcd2020. Just for this year, your donation will be matched $1 for $1 by the government under the Fortitude Budget, and GDS will receive double the amount you donate!