Big plans for pup

Neville de Kock with guide dog-in-training, Jessie, will be at the annual Love your Guide Dog fundraiser.
Neville de Kock with guide dog-in-training, Jessie, will be at the annual Love your Guide Dog fundraiser.

The annual Love your Guide Dog fundraiser will have several special guests this year – among them a local puppy in training for a big job.

Labrador Jessie, Fish Hoek’s very own guide puppy-in-training, and her raisers Bev and Neville de Kock, will be in attendance at the fundraiser – organised by locals Janice Salthouse and service dog Philippe, and Dawn Pilatowicz and service dog Shyann – in aid of the SA Guide Dog Association. Also in attendance will be guest speaker Chaeli Mycroft, who will discuss how she overcomes her challenges head-on.

Fish Hoek resident Neville says he always wanted to work in guide dog training, but did not have time while he was working in Johannesburg. “Once I moved to Cape Town I had a lot more free time, so I applied and was eventually accepted.”

Neville says he and his wife are not dog trainers, but rather “puppy raisers”.

“Our task with Jessie is to socialise her. That involves us taking Jessie to as many new places as possible and giving her new experiences that she may encounter as a guide dog or service dog. This is so that she reacts appropriately to the experience,” he explains.

“The kind of thing we do is to take her to meet old people, small children, other dogs, and other animals like horses, cats and ducks, and also to get her used to different noises. We also take her to shopping malls, restaurants and play-parks. We also go back to previous experiences so that she becomes used to them and will not be distracted when she eventually works as a guide dog or service dog.”

The SA Guide Dog Association gives support on the basics of training, says Neville, and the couple follow their methods so that when she eventually goes for formal training, “they do not have to undo and redo some of these basics”.

Jessie’s training involves basic commands, as well as around 20 words she needs to understand as a service dog. “The SA Guide Dog Association helps us with these, and how to get the dog to understand what response we want for each command. Jessie is a Labrador, so she is food obsessed. All we have to do is treat good behaviour and she picks it up quickly. This whole litter is very laid back, so it is a pleasure to teach them.”

Jessie’s litter was raised at the association’s Johannesburg centre, where the socialisation process started. “Obviously the mom is involved, but they also start with toys, noises and that sort of thing. Jessie came to Cape Town at seven weeks, and we got her when she was eight weeks. Jessie is now just over six months old. As soon as her vaccinations were all done at 12 weeks, we could begin to take her on walks. As a guide dog she will do a lot of walking, so it is also important to walk properly on a lead. She must not pull or run ahead, or be distracted by things on the side,” Neville explains.

Jessie will stay with the De Kocks until she is around a year old. She will then go to “big school” where she will be trained by the association’s trainers.

“This is far more intense and during the training the trainers assess the dog and her character. This is so that they can match a dog to a person. She could be used as a guide dog, a service dog or an autism dog for children. It all depends on what Jessie is best suited for,” he explains.

However, Jessie’s training has not all been smooth sailing. “I thought it would be quite easy for me to handle her on my own. It was not! I spend a lot of time with Jessie, and also need Bev, my wife, to assist. It is like raising kids all over again. It takes a huge amount of time,” he says.

The biggest challenge is the endless attention the public showers on Jessie when she is out and about, Neville says.

“When you take Jessie out in public, you need her to be obedient, but the public come up to Jessie and disturb her, wanting to greet and pat. That sets Jessie off, and I need to start all over again. On some occasions, I have had to go all the way back to the carpark and start over again once Jessie has calmed down. It is a real pain if you are just popping in for something quick,” he says.

The best is for people to approach him and Bev first, to ensure Jessie stays settled, Neville says.

“While she is settled, they can then greet. Jessie is so cute, we would never not let the public talk to her, but it needs to be under our terms. She always wears her guide dog jacket in public, so the public is aware that she is working.”

For Neville, the reward comes from watching Jessie develop and repeatedly “get” her training. “She also gives a lot of love in return, and that is rewarding too.”

Jessie will be at the Love Your Guide Dog fundraiser, which takes place on Friday 16 February. The three-course dinner will take place between 19:30 and 23:00 at the Fish Hoek Civic Centre. Tickets are R175 from dawn@seagull.co.za or 083 226 8250.

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