AT YOUR SERVICE
Fairlady|February 2020
These highly intelligent, expertly trained service dogs are changing the lives of their handlers. Meet the canines that are working with and supporting their human companions with incredible and inspiring dedication.
ASHLEIGH ROMAN
Kim & Jessie

IN 2016, Kim Lewis suffered a neurological event that caused her to lose her sight. ‘It came on suddenly, then became progressively worse, leaving me functionally blind after just a few months,’ she says. ‘I was a GP, so it was difficult to adjust. I was an independent career woman and mother with my own practice. That suddenly changed.’

After being on the South African Guide Dogs Association’s waiting list for about 18 months, Kim was paired with her first guide dog, Jessie.

‘I realized that I needed assistance walking, so I got a white cane, but I have arthritis in my wrist, so it was painful. It also tends to isolate you. With Jessie, people started coming up to me, saying, “What a lovely dog!” It’s an awesome way to break the ice.’

Jessie is a two-and-a-half-year-old labrador that sits at Kim’s feet while we chat. ‘I’ve always been a dog person,’ says Kim. ‘But what I have with Jessie is different. We have to trust each other; I have to trust that she won’t lead me into traffic and she has to trust that I know where we’re going because she’s not a GPS,’ Kim says with a laugh.

Before Jessie came into her life, Kim found it difficult to navigate with confidence and independence, even though she knew her surroundings well. ‘I now get from place to place with a combination of Jessie’s excellent guidance and an app called Lazarillo.’

To start their journey together, Kim and Jessie attended a two-week intensive training course with the SA Guide Dogs Association (guide-dog. org.za), during which they were taught how to communicate and build trust. ‘It’s incredible,’ says Kim. ‘I’ll say “find the way in” and Jessie will locate the entrance, or “find the counter” and she’ll take me to the pay point. The only other person I’ve felt this kind of connection with is my twin.’

Kim says her bond with Jessie has grown immensely during their first six months together, and that they communicate intuitively. ‘When I’m holding the harness, I can tell by the slightest movement she makes that an obstruction is coming.

‘Now I can walk hand in hand with my husband, instead of having to hold onto him for support. Jessie has given me a phenomenal amount of joy.’

Melanie & Hazel

After being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2017, Melanie Basson joined a community on Instagram where she came across a story about diabetic alert dogs. ‘I googled it and discovered Honey’s Garden Medical Alert Dogs (medical alert dogs.co.za), where I enquired about the cost, price and time frame,’ she says. ‘I manage my diabetes quite well, but the problem comes at night.’

Type 1 diabetics run a heightened risk of passing out in their sleep or, worse, slipping into a diabetic coma during the night. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to detect a dramatic or dangerous drop in blood sugar levels and to alert the handler.

Melanie was paired with Hazel, a two-year-old greyhound. ‘She was earmarked for me, and had been training for about a year before we met. It sounds like a cliché, but it was love at first sight,’ she says with a laugh.

To develop a connection, Melanie and Hazel trained with Just Dogs, the training facility for Honey’s Garden (justdogsbehaviour.co.za), and now train together, one-on-one, to maintain Hazel’s working performance. ‘I am relatively confident with the basic set of commands, although we’ve been together for only four months,’ says Melanie. ‘We are definitely still getting to know each other, but we are working on it. Hazel is the first dog I have ever owned.’

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