Guide dogs heaven-sent

19 December 2012 - 02:06 By KATHARINE CHILD
TRUSTED SERVANT: Martie Steyn with her sixth guide dog, Jabula, at her home in Pretoria, yesterday
TRUSTED SERVANT: Martie Steyn with her sixth guide dog, Jabula, at her home in Pretoria, yesterday

MARTIE Steyn jokes that her husband of 39 years married her for her guide dog.

Both she and Hannes Steyn are blind, but only she has used a guide dog from as far back as 1961.

Steyn and her sister, Elize Snyman, who was also born blind, were some of the first people in South Africa to start using guide dogs.

On her table in her Pretoria flat, Steyn has a photo album with a black and white photo of the pair with their new dogs. She poses with her Labrador and her sister had an Alsatian.

"Back in the day, they thought Alsatians were best."

Guide dogs today are either Labradors or golden retrievers.

There are more than 200000 blind people in the country and South African Guide Dog Association trainer Joel van Stavel said there are about 300 working dogs in the country. It trains about 50 a year.

"There is a huge need for more dogs," he said.

Although Hannes, who became blind from glaucoma in early adulthood, has relied on his long white cane, Steyn has had six dogs.

Each dog has aided Steyn for an average of 10 years.

"He married me for my guide dog," she jokes about her lawyer husband.

"But he has grown to like me."

They have plenty of patience for Steyn's dog, Jabula who is Steyn's sixth guide dog and the most spoilt.

"I know why people spoil their youngest child. She was the best present I got for my 75th birthday."

There is no mistaking the excitement in her voice when she reminisces about her first dog, Sheba. She got her when she was 24.

"I could walk alone," she says remembering the change in her lifestyle as a result of having a guide dog.

Before getting a dog, she always had to have an escort to the shops in her home town of Potchefstroom. Steyn tells stories about all her dogs before getting up to make and serve tea.

Beaver, her second dog, was small and thin.

"She thought I didn't like her because I was used to handling a bigger dog so at first I seemed forceful with her,'' she said.

When she got home after training at the centre "she went on strike" and would not walk.

Beaver would not eat dog food and preferred tinned fish.

Renier, Steyn's fifth dog, was extremely clever. It learnt its way around the neighbourhood in about three days.

Vicky had lumps of fat that pushed out in all directions and "looked like a washing bag that had not been shaken out properly".

Steyn's sister has had five dogs over the years and says she now would prefer not to have another dog.

But Steyn loves her sixth dog and the freedom it allows her to leave her apartment and go out for a walk.

"Jabula is a bit wild and naughty. But when she works she knows what to do."

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