Running a marathon is an enormous undertaking for anybody. A grueling test of mental and physical stamina, getting round that 26-mile, 385-yard course takes months of dedicated training.

For 37-year-old Gadi Yarkoni, running the New York Marathon this week will be no less a feat of strength and willpower. Not only is it the IDF veteran’s first-ever marathon, he’s doing it to raise money for his favorite charity, the Israeli Guide Dog Center.

The cause is close to his heart: Three of its dogs helped change his life.

A tall, athletic man with a quietly determined demeanor, Yarkoni lost his sight during his military service in Lebanon when he was 20. When I meet him at the Guide Dog Center’s campus in Beit Oved, he prefers to talk about what he has done with his life since, including how he got into running.

“At first I did the Tel Aviv Night Run, then I wanted to do more,” he says.

Yarkoni’s running buddy and fellow fund-raiser is 50- year-old Noach Braun, who co-founded the Israel Guide Dog Center in 1991. Since Yarkoni cannot run alone, he and Braun will run the course together, each holding the end of a short cord. Braun will instruct Yarkoni about changes in the terrain so he can run with confidence.

“Preparing for the marathon is psychological as well as physical. I have to get up before 5 a.m. to run. I also train at the gym,” Yarkoni explains. “It’s tough.”

What motivated the two to attempt a marathon in the first place? “We’re doing it to advance the Guide Dog Center,” says Braun.

To advance the Guide Dog Center has been Braun’s mantra for the last 24 years. A former IDF paratrooper and military dog trainer, he co-founded the center in 1991 after learning the difficulties blind Israelis faced to obtain a guide dog.

“When I learned there was no guide dog training center in Israel, it disturbed me,” he remembers.

Guide dogs have long been common in the US and Europe, but in the early Nineties, they were rare in Israel. Blind Israelis had to pass an English test in Jerusalem and travel to the US to obtain a trained guide dog and learn how to work with it. For the majority of Israel’s blind people, cost or poor English skills made this an impossible dream.

So, at 26, Braun went to America to train as a guide dog handler. After initial difficulties, an embassy contact introduced him to an American, Norman Leventhal, and things started to happen.

Leventhal arranged for Braun to train at a center in Ohio. Two years later, he entered a training program in the UK, and in 1990 qualified as a certified guide dog mobility instructor.

“I bought two dogs from the UK and returned to Israel,” Braun says. Together with his wife, Orna, and Norman Leventhal, Braun established the Israel Guide Dog Center in Beit Oved.

Today, the center’s 23 paid staff and volunteers train 30 new guide dogs every year, and Braun hopes to increase this to 40 dogs soon. The dogs are all provided free of charge to blind Israelis.

But this work doesn’t come cheap.

It costs $25,000 to prepare and train a dog from birth and match it with a blind person, says Braun.

“We don’t receive government funding,” Braun says.

“We rely on donations.”

Nevertheless, it’s worth it. Most blind Israelis get around using a stick or with the help of a friend, relative or carer. This restricts freedom of movement, slows them down and often leaves them isolated.

Having a guide dog transforms a blind person’s life, as Yarkoni will testify.

His face lights up when he talks about what a guide dog means to him.

“It gives me total freedom,” he says. “When I got my first dog, it immediately gave me the freedom to be myself. I can go anywhere I want without asking for help.”

His guide dog also made it easier for Yarkoni to study.

“After the Lebanon War, I wanted to learn something practical, so I chose physiotherapy,” he recalls. “I enrolled at Tel Aviv University. It was easy for me to make friends because of my dog. It was an icebreaker. People would come up and pet the dog and talk to me. With a dog it was easier for me to find my way around campus.”

Yarkoni has had three guide dogs since he became blind 15 years ago. His current dog is Timmy, a beautiful black Labrador, and is his perfect partner.

“Timmy is fast. We overtake joggers when we go out for a walk,” says the athletic Yarkoni with a smile. “He’s very intelligent, too, and learns how to get to new places very quickly.”

The Guide Dog Center prepares its dogs from the earliest moment possible – even before they are born.

Specially selected breeding dogs are kept and mated naturally or by artificial insemination. “We are members of the International Association of Guide Dogs, so we have access to stock from all over the world,” says Braun. “We select dogs especially for health and temperament.”

Labradors and golden retrievers are perfect breeds for the job.

“They have all the right features,” explains Braun. “They are the right size, are very smart, have a good temperament and are easier to train.”

Breeding the dogs in Israel is vital, since they need to cope with everyday life here and what Braun affectionately terms “the Israeli mentality.”

Metro’s guided tour of the center includes the place I most want to visit – the whelping section, where puppies are cared for until the age of eight weeks. We enter on tiptoe to avoid disturbing a litter of fiveweek- old Labrador pups enjoying a siesta.

In a large, spotless and airy room reminiscent of an elite nursery, seven golden puppies sprawl on their tummies, tiny paws outstretched as they slumber. Age-appropriate chew toys are scattered over the floor. A radio tuned to Army Radio plays softly, accustoming them to Hebrew voices.

At eight weeks old, these puppies will be transferred to foster homes. Over the next 10 months, “foster parents” – volunteer puppy trainers – will teach them everything about Israeli life. From coping with impatient people in the post office, to negotiating Israel’s armies of street cats, gregarious children, “creatively” parked cars and curmudgeonly bus drivers, these puppies will be exposed to the full gamut of daily living here.

At age one, the dogs will return to the center for assessment. Those deemed suitable embark on an intensive six-month training course.

But no puppy is overlooked.

“Dogs unsuitable for training are given to families with special needs, particularly those with blind children,” says Braun.

The center houses a fully equipped veterinary clinic and operating theater, and all the dogs are spayed or neutered. They are trained on the center’s campus, but for their final test they are taken into the city. The trainers don a blindfold and put their complete trust in these brand-new guide dogs.

Blind people seeking their first guide dog spend three days at the center to see whether a dog is suitable for their needs. If so, they are matched with a suitable canine partner.

“We make a shidduch [match] between the blind person and the dogs to find the perfect partnership,” says Braun.

Three weeks of residential training follow. The blind person learns how to care for his or her dog and how to use it to get around. The final stage takes place at the new dog owner’s home, familiarizing both partners with the daily routine.

And that’s it – another blind Israeli has a new pair of eyes (and four more legs).

Israel has 27,000 registered blind people. Of these, 250 are guide dog-assisted. This number is growing rapidly, but the center has a long waiting list. Braun and Yarkoni hope that by raising cash and awareness at the New York Marathon, more blind Israelis will in future be able to enjoy the freedom a guide dog brings.

“The Israel Guide Dog Center is incredibly special,” says Yarkoni, patting the large black guide dog waiting patiently for us to finish our meeting.

“And so is Timmy.”

For more information about the Israel Guide Dog Center visit http://israelguidedog.org

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