Sophie shares how her life has changed with her Guide Dog, Orinda
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself!
I’m Sophie, a para-swimmer for Team Singapore, and employed as a Marketing Specialist at Toyota Motor Asia Pacific (TMAP).
2. How did you come to lose your sight?
I have a condition called Cone Rod Dystrophy, an inherited retinal disease where my retina cells will deteriorate over time. This disorder typically causes a progressive loss of central vision, colour vision disturbance and photophobia.  I have central vision loss, so I use my peripheral vision to see. I’m able to see much better at night versus during the day.
3. What is the biggest difficulty you face being visually impaired?
The biggest challenge I face is having to move around places and do obstacle avoidance on my own. I travel a lot during the day and it gets daunting and frustrating having to find my way around obstacles that come my way, be it pillars, dustbins, or the hardest obstacle in my opinion — people. My guide dog has surely helped me with obstacle avoidance and allowed me to travel independently with more confidence and a faster walking pace.
4. Tell us more about your guide dog — she is so cute!
Her name is Orinda, she’s a golden/lab mix. I see a lot of my personality in her, a girl who is always up for an adventure, being active, exploring new places, and when off duty, needing a lot of attention and TLC from the people she loves the most. I’ve had Orinda for about 8 months now.
5. How does Orinda help you in your day to day activities, in replacement of the cane?
The cane only helped me detect obstacles in my way. I had to find a way around these obstacles on my own, which is a very tedious process that took a long time and was very mentally draining for me. Also, I had to find specific targets on my own, such as lifts, stairs, or escalators, which again is a long and tedious process which was mentally exhausting for me.
I can feel the difference from walking with a guide dog versus walking with a cane. I’ve been walking full time with a cane for slightly a year now and it has definitely slowed me down because it takes a lot of mental exhaustion, because I have to think about: where are the obstacles, how do I get around the obstacles, so it does take a lot of mental energy and time as well.
With Orinda, she is able to help me find the obstacles. And not only, she is also able to get me around the obstacles so I don’t have to think about where the obstacles so I can just rely on her to get me around. I will just give her directions on where I need to go, which makes a lot easier, a lot less mentally exhausting to travel and also a lot quicker in terms of time. I can also ask her to find stairs, escalators, lifts, and other targets I teach her, like dustbins, or an empty space to stand and wait for my friends.
6. Tell us about a time when you feel like you can’t do without Orinda.
I’m mostly reminded of how wonderful and helpful she is when I leave the house without her. Sometimes if I’m going somewhere close by and I want to give Orinda a rest, I’ll leave her at home with my family. When I’m out on my own, suddenly I’m reminded again of why I decided to apply for a guide dog; and when I take her out with me again, I feel so much more relieved and a lot less stressed.
7. Do you feel like you trust Orinda 100%? How is she as a Guide Dog?
I definitely trust Orinda a lot, but not 100%. Like any other living being, she is capable of making mistakes, and it’s my job to ensure I’m there to catch her when she makes any errors and correct and remind her with positive reinforcements on what is required of her. But for the most part, she is an excellent worker who absolutely loves her job and takes a lot of pride in the work she does.
8. Do you train Orinda personally? We know that it is important for her to listen to instructions given by you, so that she can be a mobility aid for you.
No, Orinda is trained by Guide Dogs Singapore’s mobility instructor. Orinda’s personality is such that she’s very close to her trainer/handler.
For the most part, I’m the main focus in her life, on or off harness, so she’s always close to me and gets anxious if I go anywhere without her. It makes it very easy for me to correct her if she ever gets distracted.
9. What are some challenges you have experienced when you are out with Orinda?
Mostly when we’re out in public, whenever people don’t accept her in public spaces where she is allowed, mostly in F&B outlets. It is such an unnecessary problem to have and unfortunately is going to take a while to rectify. Guide dogs are allowed in all F&B outlets (made legal by Singapore Food Agency) and even halal F&B outlets (supported by MUIS – advisory on their website). Many people think they need special permits to allow guide dogs in, or worse, completely ban guide dogs from their eateries.
Many people also tend to try and pet or call guide dogs, like any other dogs, but please don’t distract guide dogs when they are at work! We need them to focus as we need them to keep us safe when moving about, so calling and petting them detracts them from doing their job as guide dogs. The best (but understandably hardest) thing to do when you see a guide dog is to pretend they aren’t there.
10. How has your life changed for the better with Orinda?
There’s so much that I can think about! First of all, I’ll probably get to places twice as fast now. She definitely helps me have better mobility.
Also, I think there’s the emotional bond that a lot of people tend to forget a guide dog gives. I think losing quite a fair bit of my vision in 2018, I’ve lost quite a lot of confidence going to places and meeting new people, which I did like. I enjoyed going for meetings, meeting new people, but ever since my vision dropped, I did develop a mild social anxiety. I was a bit apprehensive of going out, especially to big social gatherings. Like the people there, they may not understand my condition and it might create a lot of awkwardness, because they are not sure how to interact with me and I don’t know how to interact with them. So it creates awkwardness and tension which I try to avoid ever since I lost my vision.
But I think ever since Orinda came into my life, I definitely feel a lot more confident going places on my own, especially gatherings or meeting new people. Because not only we’ll have something to talk about — we have Orinda to talk about, instead of talking about a stick —but also, you know I have emotional support of her being constantly there for me, and knowing that I will never be alone and she will always be there for me.
Reference Gill J. S., Georgiou, M., Kalitzeos, A., Moore, A. T., Michaelides, M. (2019). Progressive cone and cone-rod dystrophies: clinical features, molecular genetics and prospects for therapy. British Journal of Ophthalmology 2019;103:711-720.