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Being a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor is her dream job: Exclusive interview with Christina

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1. What’s your story?

I’m Christina, Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. Training the dogs to be Guide Dogs is one part of what I do; I also train the visually impaired on how to use their Guide Dogs and how to care for them. In the event that the Guide Dog teams need to learn new routes, I will also help them to achieve this.

2. How did you come to be a guide dog trainer? It’s such a unique vocation in Singapore.

It all started with my love for dogs. As a kid, I always loved dogs. I remember one of my cousins had dogs and cats as pets, and I would plead with my parents to let me go over and visit so I could play with them.

It’s funny but I actually read a book about guide dogs and assistance dogs when I was in primary school many years back. At that time, guide dogs were almost unheard of in Singapore. It made we wish we had assistant dogs in Singapore, like what I read in the book.

Fast forward years later, I became a mother, with my kids now in school themselves. I was volunteering at one of the dog shelters in Singapore, since I had time when my kids are away in school. During that time, a TV feature on Guide Dogs Singapore caught my eye and spurred me to write in and apply for a role there. They were not recruiting at that time, but my husband encouraged me, and so I wrote in anyway.

3. Is this your dream job?

It is definitely my dream job. I flew to Melbourne in 2017 to undergo a two-year Guide Dog Mobility Instructor training stint at Guide Dogs Victoria, a partner of Guide Dogs Singapore. The course was paid for by Guide Dogs Singapore.

After the two years, I graduated from the course successfully and now I am back in Singapore as a certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor to help our Guide Dog teams the best I can.

4. In your opinion, what kind of character traits are best suited for guide dog mobility instructors?

To love and enjoy working with dogs is just one part of things; you also have to have compassion for the visually impaired whom you will be working very closely with. It requires a sort of tenacity, patience and problem-solving skills to help and support guide dog teams comprising both the Guide Dog and the visually impaired handler. When I work with them, I try to see the world from their perspective and understand the issues they face.

Christina training guide dog Orinda

5. Walk us through the process: how do you teach a puppy to become the eyes and ears and guide for someone who is blind?

A Guide Dog starts his or her journey from a young age during puppyhood. When the puppy is born, he or she is placed with foster families who teach them the basics of obedience; the do’s and don’ts (e.g no jumping on furniture); socialising them in the general environment, such as supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, public transport, etc.

After 12 months of foster care, the puppy is returned to the Guide Dogs training centre for temperament assessments to determine if it is suitable for Guide Dog training. Those who are not chosen are given “alternative careers”.

For the next 6 months, the puppies undergo Guide Dog training with a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. We teach them how to maintain straight line travel, how to stop at kerbs and crossings and how to avoid obstacles in increasingly dynamic environments. At the 8-week, 12-week and 16-week mark, they also undergo blindfold assessments.

When the dogs graduate from their Guide Dog training, we then profile and match them with a potential visually impaired handler.

6. How do you know when the dog is ready to be a guide dog? What are some of the signs.

The milestone checks at 8, 12 and 16 weeks give us an idea as to how well the dogs perform as Guides Dogs.

Sometimes during this part of the training, issues may arise. If these issues cannot be resolved or may potentially impact their work as Guide Dogs, the dogs will be taken off their Guide Dog training as well. They will then be offered an “alternative career”.

7. Is there any particular breed of dogs who are easier to train to become guide dogs and why?

The most common breeds being used are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, as they are eager to please and have a friendly demeanor that make them endearing to the general public.

However, many instructors have told me that the “Ferarri” of the Guide Dog world are the German Shepherds, due to their focus and skills. Sadly their looks give them a disadvantage, as many people have a misplaced fear of them, which often cause access issues for their visually impaired handlers. In fact, the Shepherds are historically the first Guide Dogs to be trained to help the blind.

Christina training her first Guide Dog, Nixon

8. Share with us some memorable stories of your training with Guide Dogs.

In Melbourne, during my instructor course, I had the opportunity to work with my first Guide Dog team. When I was working with Nixon, the first Guide Dog I trained and worked with, it was a bit stressful and I often wondered to myself, will I be able to get him to graduate?

But he did well eventually, and when he was paired with his visually impaired handler, he was amazing. The visually impaired handler I paired him with had some anxieties, but with her new Guide Dog, she eventually became more comfortable and confident going out independently, e.g. exercising regularly at the pool, taking public transport on her own. Not only that, she also went on an overseas trip with Nixon (her Guide Dog now) to visit some friends. Inspired by how it changed her life, she set up a website called Travel Paws to help other blind people who wish to travel with their Guide Dogs too.

Every dog is different. After working with all my dogs, I find that there are always new personalities that would come up! For example, one of the dogs I worked with was quite slow and she also took a while to get used to being in her harness. Throughout her entire training, we evaluated her as a slow-paced Guide Dog. However, when we matched her and started training with her visually impaired handler, she suddenly rose up to the occasion. Her pace became more confident, her obstacle avoidance skills were put excellently to good use. Seeing her visually impaired handler open up to her and both of them begin to bond was one of the most satisfying experiences.

There was also another Guide Dog I worked with who was a pocket rocket from the get go. She was extremely fast — too fast — especially when she was doing obstacle avoidance or going up the stairs. Every walk with her, I had to keep telling her, “steady… steaaaady… straight-on and steaaady…” I had to really reinforce to her on slowing down her pace. But she did really well for her 16-week blindfold assessment in the city and is now matched with a visually impaired lady who often travels around giving talks.

9. How do you pair up a visually impaired and a Guide Dog?

The Guide Dogs are being “profiled” based on their working pace, their personality (city dogs vs those who prefer working in quieter environments), size, confidence levels. These are factors that are being considered during the matching process, to see if they will be suitable for their potential Guide Dog handler.

As for accepting the visually impaired, the bonding is developed during the team training process and has to be maintained through the working partnership between dog and human. It is important that the visually impaired handler is the main caregiver of the Guide Dog and giver of instructions from henceforth. During the team training process, that is also when I, as the trainer, take a step back from my training relationship with the dog and let the handler take over.

10. Describe a day in your life as a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor.

Back in Melbourne, when we constantly had so many dogs to train, we had to keep to a very busy schedule. It meant being at the kennels by 8am to feed and toilet the dogs, and then out on the streets for walking and training — often handling 4 dogs per trainer, till lunchtime.

Afternoons are usually set aside for obedience training or we may have to do a second training walk sometimes. After that, I’m back in the office writing and recording my training notes and preparing for the next day of training. On other days, I may be out visiting visually impaired clients and potential handlers for client work if needed.

Christina in Melbourne undergoing her training course before becoming a full-fledge Guide Dog Mobility Instructor

Here in Singapore, my time is split mainly between client work and setting up the necessary logistics in preparation for the Guide Dogs when they are imported here from Melbourne. Due to the current Covid-19 situation, we are still negotiating the import of the dogs.

11. What are some of the challenges you face as a Guide Dog instructor?

A few! Public access, especially to F&B establishments. Many eating places are unaware that they do not need a special permit to allow Guide Dogs, and that the legislation in Singapore allows Guide Dogs into all eating places. We have met with many cases where employees or owners at F&B establishments refuse the entry of Guide Dogs, citing the law. However, refusal of Guide Dogs’ entry reflects solely on the F&B owner and not because of the law.

Another challenge is the lack of consistency of audio signals at road crossings in Singapore. Some green man road crossings have no sounds, while others do. This can confuse the Guide Dogs. Sometimes in Singapore, when the green man is on and pedestrians can cross the road, cars can also start turning in if there are no pedestrians crossing. When the Guide Dog sees the car turning, they don’t cross even if their handler gives them the forward command because they sense danger. So this can cause problems for our Guide Dog teams.

In Melbourne, every traffic light has the same kind of audio signals, so the dogs are very cued in. The Guide Dogs are always ready to go at their handler’s command when the audio signal goes.

12. Tell us something that people don’t know about guide dogs.

Guide Dogs wear a sign on their working harness which says do not interact or pet the dog. Many people misunderstand that the reason for saying no to touch and interact with the Guide Dog is because they bite. That is entirely false! Nothing is further from the truth. Guide Dogs are extremely well-mannered and do not bite.

The main and most important reason is the Guide Dogs are working and need to concentrate. If they are distracted by interactions or petting by the public, they may lead their visually impaired handlers into danger, e.g. not stopping at a step, causing their handler to trip and fall, or not avoiding an oncoming obstacle. Remember that their handlers are relying on them for guidance when they are out.

Guide dogs can tell the difference between when they are working and when they are off duty. Their harness is their work uniform — once on, you can see a marked difference in their behaviour.

This article is brought to you with love in collaboration with Guide Dogs Singapore. Our Orinda and Nixon 3-Layered Face Masks are still available for sale for a limited time only—every 10 masks purchased helps a guide dog learn a new route!

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