Celebrating the South African Guide-Dogs Association: Envisioning a World of Independence, Friendship & Empowerment

Celebrating the South African Guide-Dogs Association: Envisioning a World of Independence, Friendship & Empowerment

Vanessa LeRoux

In the life-changing year of 1953, a massive shift occurred on the canvas of history as the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind was created. Like a literal lighthouse piercing through the darkness, this groundbreaking institution has served as a lifeline of liberty, an emblem of enduring companionship, and a symbol of unparalleled freedom for countless individuals across South Africa. Celebrating seven remarkable decades, its impact has reverberated, transforming lives in ways that words barely capture - a testament to human resilience, courage, and the extraordinary bonds we share with our canine companions.

The seeds of this remarkable institution were planted by Gladys Evans, who, after her training experience with a Guide Dog in the UK, returned to South Africa with her loyal Guide Dog, Sheena. Profoundly moved by the enhanced quality of life that Sheena brought to her, Gladys envisioned a world where Guide Dogs were accessible to all citizens of South Africa.

Her unwavering dedication and tireless efforts saw this vision come to life, thus introducing the very first guide dog to Africa and creating a lasting legacy of support for individuals with varying needs.

man walks down some stairs with guide dog, a black lab

The South African Guide-Dogs Association's Services Evolve

  1. The journey began with a primary focus on Guide Dogs.

  2. This was followed by the establishment of the College of Orientation and Mobility Services in 1974.

  3. In the 90s, the Association broadened its training program to include Service Dogs for people in wheelchairs.

  4. The 2000s witnessed the introduction of Autism Support Dogs for children aged between 5-12 years, providing a calming influence and a sense of stability during public meltdowns.

cut chocolate lab puppy with blue-ish eyes sitting on top of a blue pool cover

Inside the Guide Dog Breeding Process

The South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind imports semen from International Guide Dog Federation member organisations in the US and Canada and perhaps from Australia and Europe going forward. This semen is from proven Working Dog lines. Certain of these lines have proven to be successful, and the Association has continued breeding with them in its breeding programme.

The Breeding Stock Behind Their Guide Dogs are Vet-Checked and Family-Loved

Puppies are bred using the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind's specially selected female dogs. This breeding stock undergoes a comprehensive veterinary check. The dogs have blood tests, eye checks, x-rays and scans to ensure that informed decisions are made when breeding with them. Their breeding stock lives with families in loving homes and is checked by the Guide-Dogs Association's staff every month.

Guide Dogs from the Ground Up

Artificial insemination is conducted in collaboration with Onderstepoort, and the Association has a memorandum of agreement with the University of Pretoria for the selection and insemination process. Females are brought into the centre at the first sign of their season for safekeeping. The pregnant dogs are cared for in the Puppy Training Centre, where they deliver and stay with their puppies for the first approximately eight weeks. After this period, the puppies move on to the Puppy Raising Scheme, and the mother dogs return to their families.

Labradors Lead the Way: Why They're the Perfect Guide Dogs

South African Guide-Dogs Association aims to breed dogs that have the ability to become good Guide, Service and Autism Support Dogs.

Labrador Retrievers most consistently exhibit the desired characteristics of stability, initiative, docility, adaptability and robustness that help them deal with the demands of working in a variety of environments. Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are valuable additions to the stock.

beautiful golden puppy in nature, standing amongst the rocks<br>

From Pups to Professionals: The Training Journey

Training these future guide dogs begins with specific stimulation exercises when they're just 2-3 weeks old. Formal training starts with the Puppy Training Scheme at eight weeks and continues with training until they are 16-18 months old. Subsequently, they enter a rigorous 6-8 month Full Training Program. By their second birthday, they are fully trained and ready to be paired with their prospective handlers. This includes Guide Dogs for people who are blind, Service Dogs for those who are in wheelchairs, and Autism Support Dogs for autistic children. Let's take a closer look at each of the three categories of dogs and see exactly what these angels without wings bring to the lives of their handlers.

yellow lab with yellow bowtie sitting down on a pink background

Companions in Navigation: The Life-Changing Role of Guide Dogs

A Guide Dog serves as both a faithful companion and a diligent Working Dog, specifically trained to assist visually impaired handlers, enabling them to navigate the world independently. Pairing a Guide Dog with a handler is a thoughtful process, taking into account various factors such as the handler's lifestyle, the dog's temperament and working capabilities, the specific needs of the handler, and the environment in which the dog will be working. Formal training for Guide Dogs commences between 12 to 18 months old, with instructors giving individualised attention to each dog, understanding and catering to their unique traits and abilities. Guide Dog training is undertaken with a clicker and food rewards.

Canine Cadets Learn the Following:

  • Obedience ("sit", "down", "stand", "stay", and "recall").

  • Guiding position (walking ahead and parallel to the handler).

  • Straight line concept (the dog follows the natural curve of the path, avoids obstacles and returns to the original direction of travel).

  • How to avoid obstacles (this includes height obstacles).

  • Turns (the dog is taught to turn left, right and back).

  • To indicate steps up or down.

  • To ignore distractions.

  • To find orientation points (find the kerb, the step, the escalator, the door, the crossing).

  • To use lifts and escalators.

  • To work safely in non-pavement conditions.

  • Traffic work exercises to increase the dog's awareness of vehicles.

  • To behave in an acceptable manner in all social situations.

The Final Lap: Completing the Training of Guide Dogs

During the final stages of a Guide Dog's training, their dedicated instructors simulate the conditions of a visually impaired handler by wearing a blindfold. This step crucially allows the Guide Dog to demonstrate its guiding abilities across different environments and situations, ensuring that they are ready to provide the necessary assistance its future handler will require.

Young women sits with her guide dog at a coffee shop reading braille.

Cohesion in Motion: The Functionality of Guide Dog Partnerships

In this remarkable partnership, the handler and their Guide Dog operate as a cohesive unit. The handler directs the Guide Dog along a given route while the dog walks in a straight line, skillfully navigating around all obstacles. At each landmark on the way, the handler instructs the Guide Dog on the next course of action.

When reaching a road crossing, the handler decides whether to cross or turn in a particular direction. If the decision is to cross, the handler will instruct the Guide Dog to proceed only once it's safe to do so. The dog, trained to respond to this directive, will cross the road in a straight line and locate the upkerb, offering a seamless guiding experience for their handler.

Dogs are very good at finding orientation points. These could be general orientation points that the dog will find in all environments, for example, "find the kerb" or "find the escalator", or they could be specific orientation points that relate to that particular route, for example, "find John's office."

German Shepherd face gazing into the distance

Service Dogs: Unleashing Potential, Enhancing Lives

A Service Dog, both a diligent Working Dog and a loyal companion, is specially trained to assist handlers who are physically disabled. Each Service Dog undergoes a tailored training regimen to meet the unique needs of their future handler, learning how to help with specific tasks that enhance the handler's quality of life. The pairing process is a carefully considered one, ensuring that the handler's lifestyle, the dog's capabilities, the handler's specific needs, and the working environment all align to create a harmonious and effective partnership.

Barking Up the Skill Tree: Expanding Capabilities in Service Dog Training

At the heart of Service Dog training are the essential tasks of retrieve, push, and pull. Their skilled instructors begin by teaching these tasks in their simplest forms. As the dog's understanding and capabilities grow, the tasks gradually become more complex, preparing the dog for a wide range of scenarios they might encounter with their future handler.

Building the Bridge to Independence with Well-Prepared Service Dogs

For a handler who uses a wheelchair, everyday challenges like retrieving objects dropped on the floor or placed on a high table can be daunting. However, a well-trained Service Dog can execute these tasks with remarkable ease. Door handles may need adaptations for the Service Dog to assist effectively, such as pulling down levers, and our instructors are on hand to advise on all specific modifications required.

In the final phases of the training, instructors simulate tasks that mirror the ones the Service Dog will perform with their handler, ensuring that the dog is well-prepared for its vital role as an assistant and companion.

From Training to Triumph: Standing at the Ready

A trained service dog can:

  • Retrieve a variety of objects from a variety of locations.

  • Assist with the opening and closing of doors, draws, cupboards etc.

  • Assist with switching light switches on/off.

  • Locate your family member on your property and indicate that you need assistance.

  • Take objects to or fetch things from another person on your property.

  • Bark on command.

  • Walk next to your wheelchair in a controlled manner.

Young boy and yellow lab sit peacefully by the water's edge.

The SA Guide-Dogs Association & Their Invaluable Autism Support Dogs

Autism Support Dogs are specially selected dogs that are trained to work with children with Autism. The Autism Support Dog's primary role is to help with the tendency of children with Autism to experience a meltdown in a public place and run away when distracted.

The Mom or Dad or a caregiver are the Autism Support Dog's primary handler. The dog wears a soft harness; a lead is attached to this soft harness, and the child holds this lead. The dog plays the role of anchor, limiting the child's inclination to run away.

These dogs provide comfort and bring wonderful calmness and tranquillity into the life of the child and the family. This service is for children aged between 5 and 12 diagnosed with Autism by a qualified medical practitioner.

The Remarkable Extras of Autism Support Dogs:

  • Companionship for children who are often lonely due to their Autism.

  • Assisting with speech therapy, general lessons and tactile issues.

  • Improved confidence.

  • Provides physical pressure needed in times of anxiety.

  • Interaction free from demands.

Fostering the Unbreakable Bond Between Handler and Support Dog

South African Guide-Dogs Association's instructors spend significant time understanding the character and temperament of each dog over the training period.

They will consider everything they know about a Support Dog's disposition and working ability and compare this to the handler's needs, lifestyle, preferences and environment. Given the diverse needs of individuals on the waiting list, the meticulously matching of each dog with a suitable handler ensures a successful partnership that meets their needs.

A good example of this is how a successful match between a dog and its handler depends to a large degree on the nature and spirit of the individual dog. If the dog is sociable and energetic, it would be matched with a handler who is out and about and ready to interact with the dog when it is not working. A handler who is quiet with a high-energy dog may experience control issues and be ineffective.

Handler and Dog Compatibility - Further Considerations:

  • The speed of the handler and the dog.

  • The dog's willingness to accept physical contact, poor balance or an uneven gait from the handler, slow or reluctant following and variations in reflexes.

  • The dog's sensitivity levels – body, hearing and mental sensitivities must be assessed to ensure the dog and handler are compatible.

  • The dog's ability to accept the handler's natural handle tension and grip.

  • The dog's reliability when dealing with hazards, such as steps, traffic or overhead obstacles which, can pose a challenge to the handler.2

The level of success of the partnership also depends on factors relating to work (mobility) as well as non-working (social) aspects of the relationship.1 Partnering with a support dog is a 50/50 relationship, and as such, essential evaluation of the work as well as the social connection of the handler and dog by the Guide-Dogs Association is carried out. Ultimately the handler and their Support Dog's compatibility will determine the success of their partnership.

dad and daughter play with dog on the lounge floor

Backing the Vision: Your Role in the South African Guide-Dogs Association

The Association invites public support in various ways:

  1. Volunteers are needed for different projects at the premises.

  2. Families are required for the Puppy Raising Scheme, taking in pups at eight weeks and caring for them until they are ready for the official training programs at 16 to 18 months.

  3. Monetary and legacy donations are welcomed. There are many varied ways in which the public can donate everything the Association needs to continue with its life-changing work. Please see their website for details.

  4. Assistance is needed in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Building Hope Together: Petworld and The South African Guide-Dogs Association's Collaborative Efforts

Petworld deeply appreciates the work The South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind undertakes. To show meaningful support, they have presented them with a cheque of R10,000 worth of store vouchers for dog food and necessities. A big thank from Petworld goes to the Association for its continued partnership, mutual love for the dogs and the transformative difference they make in so many people's lives.


Connect and Learn More

To learn more, visit the Association's website at www.guidedog.org.za, or contact them by phone in Johannesburg at 011 705 3512 and in Cape Town at 021 674 7395. Office Hours: 08h00 to 16h30, Monday to Friday. You can also email them at info@guidedog.org.za.

The Association's Facilities can be Visited At:

Gauteng Office and Training Centre

Gladys Evans Training Centre
126 Wroxham Road, Paulshof, Sandton, 2191
P O Box 67585, Bryanston, 2021

Western Cape Office

De Villiers House
89 Belvedere Road, Claremont, Cape Town, 7708
P O Box 2674, Clareinch, 7740

For Questions and Answers

Q. Who is responsible for the Working Dog's care?
A. The Guide-Dogs Association wants Working Dogs to be available to you regardless of your financial position. You need to be able to afford to care for a Working Dog. You are responsible for the feeding and routine veterinary care of your dog.

Q. Do I have to be completely blind to qualify for a Guide Dog?
A. No, you may apply if you have residual vision because you can benefit from using a mobility aid such as a Guide Dog or long cane.

Q. How is a Working Dog thanked for doing a good job?
A. Working dogs enjoy affection; therefore, physical touch is very rewarding, as is vocal praise. Working Dogs often receive a small treat after completing requested tasks.

Q. Am I allowed to talk to or touch a Working Dog?
A. Always ask the owner if you may talk to or touch their dog.

Q. How long can a Working Dog work before retirement?
A. Usually about 8 – 10 years, but this varies according to the health of the Working Dog and the normal ageing process.

Q. What happens if I have a problem that requires immediate intervention?
A. An Instructor from the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind will visit you within 24 hours wherever you live in South Africa.

Q. What happens to my Working Dog when it retires?

A. The dog will stay with you. If this is not possible South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind will find a loving home for the retired dog.

Q. Does the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind receive any government funding?
A. No, all of their funds come from donations and their fundraising initiatives.

Q. Are there other Guide Dog training centres in Africa?
A. No, the South African Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind is the only training centre in Africa.


  1. Handlers' Expectations and Perceived Compatibility Regarding the Partnership with Their First Guide Dogs. Published online 2021 Sep 22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8532721/

  2. By Ben Francis, Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, CNIB Guide Dogs. https://www.cnib.ca/en/blog/inside-scoop-matching-guide-dog-someone-who-blind?region=on