Thursday, December 22, 2011

SINGAPORE: Singapore's second guide dog for the blind has arrived.
21 December 2011

Bred and trained in Australia, she has found her new home in Bukit Panjang in central Singapore.

Esme looks just like any two-year-old Labrador, but she's not a pet when she has her working harness on.

For vision-impaired Cassandra Chiu, Esme acts as her pair of eyes, and an indispensable guide.

So too much friendly attention is not always a good thing.

"This is a working dog, it would be best if she's not distracted with pats and treats because she has to stay focused on what she's doing in getting me safely from one place to another," said Ms Chiu.

Singapore law allows for guide dogs on trains and buses, and also in restaurants.

But not everyone welcomes Esme.

Dr Francis Seow-Choen, chairman of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind, said: "Cassandra, in the last few days has been going on the MRT, buses, but in the more individualised forms of transport like taxis, there are queries, there're rejections. When you go into malls there're still rejections.

"(The guide dogs) are very well trained, they don't make a noise, they don't bark, they don't chase little animals or children. Therefore people can put their fears to rest that these dogs will cause a disturbance, because they will not."

After undergoing training almost her entire life in Melbourne, Esme is now in the final stage of her settling-in programme in Singapore.

For this, her Australian trainer Aaron Horsington was here for a week.

"Working with people like Cassandra, and being able to see the dog moving on and providing that person with a service... that's very meaningful. Seeing that end product really is what keeps me going back again, and starting with the next group of dogs," he said.

The cost of training guide dogs is high - about S$40,000 per dog for a two-year programme.

But for Ms Chiu, The Singapore Guide Dogs Association of the Blind paid for Esme and her training.

Ms Chiu will be responsible for Esme's daily maintenance, but this, Dr Seow said, is inexpensive.

"The costs, once you get the dog, are minimal. We encourage our clients to feed their dogs dry food, which actually comes up to about S$1 a day," said Dr Seow.

Dr Seow said they are also looking at insurance for their guide dogs in the future.

"Unfortunately, the symbol of being vision-impaired in Singapore has been the white cane for a very long time. Hopefully, in time to come, Singaporeans will recognise that there is a different form of mobility for vision-impaired individuals as well," said Ms Chiu.

With both Ms Chiu and Esme leading the way, the association said it is expecting four more guide dogs from Victoria next year.

I didn’t know how rare guide dogs are in Singapore. Esme is only the second one in Singapore.

I had the fortune of meeting the first, Kendra and her owner Mr Alvin Ng not once but twice!

Kendra was really lovely and obedient and she sat quietly under the seat on the bus which I didn’t even notice until she got up.

I first know about guide dog almost 30 years ago when I watched a documentary on TV. I am a little surprise that Singaporeans are still ignorant of them and the rights they have.