Quadriplegic and ‘study buddy’ graduate

DEFYING all the odds – and with a little help from his guide dog – quadriplegic Heinrich Williams will graduated from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) with a national diploma in industrial engineering today.

Crossing the stage with Williams, 45, was his “study buddy”, Viking, who has had full graduation attire custom-made by Croft, Magill & Watson for the event.

Viking, a four-year-old Golden Retriever mix, attended all Williams’s lectures and exams as a service dog, assisting him in achieving his qualification.

“He deserves to graduate with me, he was present in all my classes,” Williams said.

Williams is classified as a C6 quadriplegic, which means he still has full head and neck movement, with limited use of his biceps as well as his wrists and fingers, which allows him to grasp objects lightly.

Williams had to adapt to life in a wheelchair after contracting a bacterial infection which resulted in an abscess pressing against his spinal cord.

In 2010, Williams was in China assisting an automotive company with the design and development of a new vehicle when tragedy struck.

“Two weeks into the trip, I started having spasms [in my muscles],” he said.

Shortly after the spasms began, Williams woke up one morning not feeling too well, took a shower and headed back to bed.

“My left leg and arm were numb. By the time paramedics arrived, I was completely paralysed,” he said.

According to Williams, the doctors in China could not give him any explanation as to how he could have contracted the infection.

After returning to South Africa and struggling to find work, Williams – acting on a friend’s advice – registered to study at NMMU in 2013.

“Returning to a classroom after 20 years was daunting. I was older and disabled,” the qualified aircraft electrician, who spent 12 years with the SA Air Force, said.

Williams said his first year back at university was the hardest, but his experiences at NMMU had been great.

“Young, old and across all races, Viking and I were accepted and able to mingle very well,” he said.

Williams has been supported by his wife, Deidre, who is also his caregiver. They have been married for 14 years.

“I worked hard, many long nights, but my wife is extremely encouraging and positive,” he said.

In September last year, Williams was honoured at NMMU’s inaugural Innovator’s Evening for his contribution to innovation and technology transfer.

With the help of NMMU’s innovation office, he conceptualised the Qbell, “an innovative nurse-call button suitable for patients who cannot use existing buttons”.

It is an alternative call button that can be used by patients with reduced or no hand/arm function.

It is being market tested at Life St George’s and Netcare Greenacres hospitals.


South African Guide-dogs Association for the Blind also trains dogs to assist people with disabilities other than blindness.  With numerous commands the Service Dog becomes the physical extensions of their recipients by retrieving dropped items and turning on light switches, etc

The specially bred dogs are ready and able to perform a variety of basic tasks designed to bring independence to a person with a physical disability.

Our training procedures are highly specialized.  The dogs are trained in a variety of environments, including shopping malls, restaurants and other public places to prepare them for working in all types of situations.
Coming from carefully selected pedigreed stock, as puppies they are placed in volunteer homes, “Puppy Raisers” as we call them, to begin their first stages of training. After 12-14 months with the Puppy Raiser, the pup returns to the training centre to start with approximately six months advanced training.  The skills and personalities of the dogs are thoroughly evaluated by the training staff, and each dog is matched and very carefully assessed before being placed with a disabled person.

Who qualifies to receive a Service Dog?

Service dogs are trained for people with a physical disability.

Applicants need to demonstrate that they are unable to perform certain daily tasks that a dog can perform for them. Daily tasks include but are not limited to, retrieve, pull and push for example doors or pushing light switches and lift buttons.

No one person is the same and it is difficult to make hard and fast rules as to who would benefit from a service dog – by getting to know your individual circumstances, we can assess whether or not a service dog might be an appropriate option for you.

Please contact us if you require more information. Maxine 0117053512 or servicedogs@guidedog.org.za


Any person over the age of 18 who is physically disabled can apply for a Service Dog if he/she is prepared to undertake the necessary training.  He will become the dog’s owner on the successful completion of the course and a payment of a purely nominal sum of R5.00


Training is as important for the prospective owner as it is for the dog, as the training of the dog will quickly break down if it is not handled and managed properly.  Training for the owner usually consists of a stay at the Training Centre for 2-3 weeks, although as the Association continues to strengthen and obtain additional facilities, more opportunities for whole or part training from the applicant’s home will be made available.  Each system has pros and cons for the individual and is something that would normally be discussed at the interview with the instructor.

Most Service Dogs are reared from breeding stock owned by the Guide Dog Association.  As puppies, they are brought up in families known as Puppy Walkers, who ensure that they are thoroughly domesticated and given some very basic training.  The young dogs return to the training centre when they are about a year old and for the next six to nine months are taught how to assist physically disabled people.  By the time they are ready to be allocated to someone, the traininer knows just about everything there is to know about the character and attributes of each of the dogs under his control.  Applicants will also have been interviewed and assessed so that the centre is able to select the most suitable dog for them.  This process is most important to the success of the working partnership and great care is taken to make the best possible match.

There are usually 2-3 students on each course and their residential training at the centre starts by learning about the responsibilities of dog ownership and the needs of a working dog.
A day or two after arriving at the centre, students are introduced to their dogs, who from then on stay with their new owners, sleeping in their rooms, learning how to be friends and partners for the rest of the course and for many years to come.  Inevitably, new owners are apprehensive about working with a dog.   Confidence is gained from the Instructors and other students.

At the end of the training course an Instructor returns home with the newly qualified Service Dog Owner.  The Instructor helps the Service Dog and it’s master to settle down to their new life together and provides assistance and advice.

The Training Centre keeps in touch with the Service Dog Owners and regular visits will be made throughout the dog’s working life to help maintain safe and competent standards.  Instructors are always on call to help in an emergency or if unforeseen problems arise.

Over the years, much will depend on the Service Dog Owner ensuring that the dog’s work remains at a high standard.  Every well-trained animal looks to its master for a lead, and unless a Service Dog receives clear instructions, firm control and lots of praise when it is working well, the quality of it’s work will soon deteriorate.


The Association aims to provide Service Dogs for as many people as can use them safely, and will supply a fully trained Service Dog to any suitable person who completes the training programme successfully.
To ensure that no one is deterred from having a Service Dog on financial grounds the Service Dog Owner is asked to pay only R5.00 for the dog.

Students are expected to pay their own fares to and from the training centre and contribute R100.00 towards the cost of their board and lodging whilst undergoing training.  However, sympathetic consideration is given to anyone likely to face financial difficulties through this requirement.


Application may be directed to :
The Training Manager,
The South African Guide-dogs Association for the Blind
Box 67585, Bryanston, 2021

Telephone : (011) 705 3513, Fax: 086 506 3364 – Servicedogs@guidedog.org.za

When the completed forms are received, and if there is no obvious reason why the applicant cannot be trained, the applicant is placed on file and arrangements made for an informal interview. All applicants need to be interviewed and accepted before they can be trained. The applicant will then be called as soon as possible for training.

IN IT TOGETHER: Heinrich Williams and his guide dog Viking will both be crossing the NMMU stage today to receive a national diploma in industrial engineering