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.


Meet the service dogs who are changing the lives of their handlers

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 realised 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 (guidedog. 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 (medicalale­rtdogs.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.’

Melanie has to inject herself with two different types of insulin every day. She tests her blood sugar up to 12 times a day, including just before she goes to bed. During the day, Melanie instructs Hazel to ‘check’, at which point Hazel starts sniffing her ankles, thighs and upper legs to detect when her blood sugar drops quickly or when it reaches a specific number.

With Hazel at her side, Melanie is able to live a full, active life, without the fear of being caught unaware or passing out during the night. ‘She’s really changed my life; I take her everywhere I can. My work colleagues and company have been so amazing and respectful.’

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to detect a dramatic or dangerous drop in blood sugar levels, and to alert the handler.

Spending time with his dog has helped Zac develop new skills and take an interest in new things.

Zac & Nina

Zac was a toddler when Cathy first became concerned about her grandson’s behaviour. ‘He became aggressive; he struggled to sleep and had uncontroll­able meltdowns,’ says Cathy. After several visits to doctors and specialist­s, Zac was diagnosed with severe autism, and enrolled at Alpha School for autistic children (alphaschoo­l.co.za).

Now 11, Zac lives with Cathy (who is also his primary caregiver), his aunt Chloe and uncle Ryan in Heideveld, Cape Town. After being on the waiting list for more than three years, they were informed that he would receive Nina, a three-year-old golden retriever/ labrador autism support dog.

His school was happy to accept Nina into their space, and created a special daily programme for the two of them, including an exercise routine.

‘Since Nina came along, Zac has come out of his shell,’ says Chloe. ‘He’d usually refuse to engage with people, and generally choose to be on his own. Now he takes great pride in walking around with Nina, telling her to sit or walk. They’ve really bonded. He takes such pride in his ownership of her, which is amazing because he didn’t even like dogs before.’

Cathy explains that Nina was specifical­ly trained for and paired with Zac because of her gentle and supportive nature. ‘The South African Guide Dogs Associatio­n ensures that the correct breed of dog with the right temperamen­t is placed with the right owner,’ she says. Cathy follows the mandatory guidelines, such as taking Nina to the vet once a month.

Nina has made life easier for the whole family. ‘I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and am often in a lot of pain,’ says Cathy. ‘Zac was so dependent on me before. Now he spends most of his time with Nina.’

Spending time with his dog has also helped Zac develop new skills and take an interest in new things. ‘He never liked physical activity; now he takes Nina for her exercises,’ says Cathy. ‘He talks to her like we would talk to a friend. He’s been given a lifelong companion who offers him unconditio­nal love and support. Even when we become frustrated at times, Nina will always be on his side.’

Zac loves that Nina runs with him, plays with him and listens to him. ‘She’s my best friend,’ he says, smiling.

Mosuli & Savage

Constable Mosuli Faku is the primary handler and self-proclaimed best friend of Cape Town’s top narcotics sniffer dog, Savage. Before joining the Metro Police K-9 Unit and being paired with Savage, Mosuli worked as a security guard, where he also specialise­d as a dog handler. ‘I’ve always spent time with dogs – although Savage is very special.’

The German shepherd was awarded a medal for his police work in 2019 – he sniffed out R160000 worth of drugs in the space of six months. ‘Savage has uncovered drugs hidden undergroun­d, under car seats, just about anywhere you can think of,’ says Mosuli. ‘By watching him work, I am able to plan and adjust my search routine during future raids.’ The pair has been ‘colleagues’ for four years; their relationsh­ip began when Savage was just six months old.

‘They’re born and bred here, at the unit. When they are puppies, we play with them to initiate a bond, and when they turn a year old, they begin training to sniff out narcotics like dagga, heroin, tik and cocaine.’

Mosuli and Savage spend eight hours a day together, and have formed an incredibly special bond. ‘He’s the reason I wake up every day and come to work. Sometimes it’s difficult to leave, because I can’t take him home with me. It’s the hardest part of the job. When I put him in the kennel after the shift, I can see how sad he looks when I walk away.’

While Mosuli shows me the procedure for entering the kennels at the K-9 Unit, I hear Savage barking from around the corner. ‘It’s as if he can feel my presence before he sees me,’ Mosuli says. ‘When he hears my voice, he starts barking and getting excited.’ As we enter the kennels, Savage jumps up to ‘hug’ Mosuli, putting his paws around his waist.

To ensure Savage stays on top of his game, Mosuli does obedience training with him every day. He says that working with the dog has improved the quality of his own work. ‘Sometimes I’m not in the mood for work, but when I see how eager he is to get to work, I’m motivated to go out there and do our job.

‘I’m constantly inspired by Savage’s enthusiasm and loyalty,’ says Mosuli. ‘The most important thing is the bond we have; letting him know I’m always there, encouragin­g him, praising him – that’s all he wants.’

‘The moment he hears my voice, he starts jumping, barking and getting excited.’

‘In one year, Lilah has given me what I’d been missing in my life since the age of 10.’

Annie & Lilah

Annie Roberts (70) has battled with severe depression for most of her life. At the age of 13, she attempted suicide for the first time. At 14, she lost her mother to suicide and about a year later, her father passed away. ‘It was so debilitati­ng. It is a debilitati­ng condition in general. And at the time they couldn’t give you something for it. So I just battled and battled.’

When her son Nigel committed suicide in 2010, Annie found herself in a darker place than she had ever anticipate­d. ‘He went off Chapman’s Peak and they found his remains only seven months later.

For many years after losing my son, I didn’t go out. I didn’t want to see people. I was like a hermit. It felt as if something was chasing me all the time.’

In 2018, her psychiatri­st recommende­d a psychiatri­c support dog, and she was referred to Lucy Breytenbac­h of Honey’s Garden Medical Alert Dogs. Lucy introduced her to Lilah, a four-year-old Collie cross. ‘I sat down and she immediatel­y plonked herself down next to me. I could feel my anxiety lifting,’ Annie recalls.

At first, she used to get Lilah for weekends, but when her long-time partner, Dale, saw what a difference Lilah was making in Annie’s life, they made arrangemen­ts to keep her full-time. ‘She’s changed my life in a way that’s hard to describe,’ says Annie. ‘When I’m having a bad day, she’ll stay by my side and put her paws over my knees, like she’s massaging them. When I cry, she licks my tears and pushes her face into my neck. She’s been my saving grace.’

Since receiving Lilah, Annie hasn’t looked back. ‘I haven’t tried to self-harm since she’s been around. I go out and do things now. If I could, I would tell everyone what this dog has done for me. In one year, Lilah has given me what I’d been missing in my life since the age of 10. Now, I go out and about with Lilah, and everywhere we go we’re asked about service dogs. In a sense, Lilah undertakes ambassador­ial duties for service dogs. The training that Lilah received from Honey’s is out of this world.’

Lilah has a troubled past herself. She’s a rescue that spent a lot of time in and out of foster homes before being spotted by Lucy, receiving her excellent training and finally finding a permanent home with Annie.

‘Together, we take it one day at a time,’ Annie says with a smile. ‘My life is just blossoming now. I would never have been able to sit here and talk to you this way before. And I can’t stress this enough: people out there with similar debilitati­ng depression need these dogs. They need to know that these animals are giving people their lives back. My wish is for big corporatio­ns to sponsor the training of these dogs for those who can’t afford a service dog.’

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