Play dates don't get much more fun than this.
The two little munchkins - Bobby, aged seven months, and eight month-old Elsa - race around a grassy area on the Beersheba campus of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, leaping, cavorting, rolling over, enjoying the beautiful day and the chance to run free with a best friend. After a half hour, both have worn off all the excess energy, and when a whistle sounds, each - panting and smiling - returns to sit at the feet of their foster parents. It's time to go, they're told. Bobby has a chemistry lecture to attend, while Elsa gets to sleep through a three-hour lab.
Bobby and Elsa both attend BGU full-time, going to all the classes their foster parents attend. They also go to movies and restaurants, on buses and taxis, to malls and grocery stores, and on holidays, home to visit the rest of the family. It's all part of their training. Neither Bobby nor Elsa will ever have to pass a chemistry test, but eventually they'll be evaluated on how well they've adapted to human life.
Elsa, a pure Labrador, and Bobby, a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, are enormously valuable puppies. They've been selectively bred and are now in the first stage of training to enter a life of lofty service. If they finish the training and pass all the tests, they'll be certified as one of the growing group of Israeli seeing-eye dogs, and will serve as a loving shadow to one of Israel's estimated 23,000 blind people. For most of the visually impaired, having a full-time canine companion to do the one thing they cannot do for themselves - see - would be a dream come true.
Normally, of course, dogs aren't permitted in all the places Bobby and Elsa go. But each dog sports a bright blue identification shirt. "Seeing-eye puppy in training," it reads. "Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind."
That shirt is their entry ticket to just about every place in Israel - and any place a blind person might go, if the dog were his.
The Guide Dog Center had its origins back in 1986, when Noach Braun, a former ranger and paratrooper who'd worked with dogs in the IDF, decided to train dogs for the blind. "We were officially certified as a non-profit association in 1991," Braun says. "Before that, if a blind person in Israel couldn't pass an English test, they couldn't qualify to receive a guide dog. Back in the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, a psychologist and dog trainer, had prepared guide dogs to assist blind Israelis, but after she passed away there wasn't anyone to continue her work. At the time, the best solution seemed to be to send blind Israelis to training centers in the US - but that meant they had to speak English because the dogs were all trained in English. We decided we needed a local Israeli training center so guide dogs could be trained in Hebrew."
The center started in a rented house in Kfar Yedidya, but by 1994 had moved to its present home in Beit Oved, south of Tel Aviv. A sprawling new Student Center includes not only living quarters for students in training, but dog runs, whelping kennels and a complete veterinary clinic with an operating room, examining room and diagnostic laboratory. But even the best training institution couldn't provide the first thing a seeing eye dog needs to know: how to live with a real person in the real world.
"We looked for foster families," Braun says. "We wanted puppy training supervisors who would take the puppies, raise them for the first year, love them and expose them to all aspects of daily life. We began on the BGU campus, and are now expanding to other campuses. Every year, we graduate 50-60 seeing eye dogs, who are then placed all over the country. Right now, we have 15 older puppies in training on the BGU campus, Bobby and Elsa's age. But we also have another eight two-month-olds who are ready to be placed either with students or with any family who's able to participate."
Bobby's foster parents are Deena and Amit Davidi, both of whom are from the Rishon Lezion area, and both in their final year of undergraduate work - Amit in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, Deena in Industrial Engineering and Management. Married just six months ago, neither had ever had a dog before beginning to raise Bobby.
"We saw other training puppies on campus, and thought it would be a good thing for us to do, to make the connection," Amit says, holding Bobby's leash. Bobby calmly watches a cat walking just a short distance away. He doesn't bark, strain on the leash, or give any indication that for him, as for many dogs, cats constitute lunch. Amit continues, "We picked up Bobby when he was just two months old, a tiny little thing. We'd been given instructions on how to treat him and what to teach him, but still, we'd never had a dog, so we really didn't know what to expect."
"For the first couple of days, we just followed him around," Deena recounts. "He was too small to walk very well, he kept slipping on the tile floors - he was so cute! There's a 24-hour hotline for help, and at the very beginning, we called a lot. At first, we thought he was sleeping too much - we were wondering if he was really that tired, or if he was sad, or just didn't like us. But the hotline told us it was okay - puppies just sleep a lot. It's just like raising your first baby. You have to ask - how could you know?"
The center supplies everything the foster parents need - all the food is donated, plus the veterinary care, vaccines, a crate and all training supplies. "Our job is to take him with us everywhere we go," Amit says. "The objective is to socialize him, get him accustomed to all kinds of people and places, so he's comfortable in all situations."
Housebreaking is the first objective. "It wasn't hard," Amit says. "It took about two weeks. We'd bring him outside every two hours or so, or any other time we thought he had a certain look on his face. The first night we had him, we didn't have the heart to put him in his crate. Finally he did go to sleep, but then, three minutes after he woke up, he went, right there on the carpet! Lovely. It was the first time we'd ever cleaned up after a dog - but it was okay. We were just at Deena's parents house, so it was fine."
The training dogs are all either pure Labs, or half Golden Retriever - half Lab mixes. "These two breeds are easy to train, responsible, intelligent and calm," Amit says. "They want to please. A lot of them look alike, but they'll grow to be different sizes and have different personalities, which means that they can be closely matched to the needs of different blind people."
In many ways, it's the trainers who are trained. "Every month someone from the Center visits us. They check to see how the puppy is doing, how he's growing, what he's learning, and to see what we might need. Then they teach us what we need to teach the dog over the next period. First was housebreaking, then to sit. The last lesson is how to ride escalators. A dog has to jump, right at the very end, so they don't get their claws caught. We'll keep Bobby for about a year, and then he'll be tested. If he passes, he'll go to an additional five-month training period at the Center, where he learns everything he needs to know about being a seeing-eye dog. Only 60 percent pass and go on to the next stage of training."
What happens to the other 40%? "Sometimes the family who raised them can have them back," Amit says. "Or else they go to a blind child, who can't qualify for a real guide dog on his own, but who can benefit from having a very well trained pet, so it will be easier to learn to work with a real guide dog, when the time comes."
From birth to placement with a blind person, each dog costs the center about $25,000. For the blind person, it's all free. Qualified candidates will receive the guide dog, instruction and regular home visits during the 8 to 12-year working life of the dog. They also spend three weeks at the training center, bonding and learning to work with their newest best friend. The dogs are specifically trained to Israeli standards, to navigate Israel's physical environment, which might include bus stand posts or streetlights in the middle of sidewalks, concrete barriers at street corners or cars parked half on the sidewalk and half on the road.
The puppies in training seem remarkably well behaved, considering they're still so young. "I've had dogs all my life, but never a dog like Elsa," says Elsa's foster father, Rea Ben-Gad. "She's the smartest dog I've ever seen, and everyone falls in love with her. Everyone in the neighborhood knows her, so when I'm studying for a final, there's just a stream of people at my door, wanting to take her out and walk her. She's in great shape."
Taking Elsa to a restaurant is great for Elsa, but tough on Ben-Gad. "I never get to eat a bite. From the moment we walk in, anyone in the whole place who likes dogs comes over to pet her, talk to her, to ask questions. That's okay, I understand. How could anyone ignore Elsa?"
Ben-Gad, who was born in Arad and now lives in Beersheba, says the rule against feeding the dog table food isn't easy when he's home with his parents. "My mom is just like a grandmother with her, so I have to watch. Sometimes I have to ask, 'Mom, did you give her something?' and my mom will say, 'Well, just a bite, but it was a really little bite.'
"The puppies are supposed to eat their own food," he says. "It can be human food, but not yours. The dog can't get used to jumping up on the table to eat with the family. Another rule is the dog has to sleep in his own bed - which isn't a problem, it's very comfortable, blankets and everything. They have to stay off of couches, too. But those are just technicalities."
For Ben-Gad, who has a bit over a year to go in his study for a degree in Chemical Engineering, Elsa is his first seeing-eye puppy, and likely his last. "I just can't even imagine how I'll ever give her up," he says. "She's the most amazing dog I've ever seen. I'll never have another dog like her. It's going to be very hard."
Deena and Amit Davidi plan to do it again. "It depends on where we go, after graduation, and where we live. But definitely, we plan to do it again.
"It's been so much fun, the whole thing," Amit says. "We'll be very sorry to see Bobby go, but that's part of the job. I can't even tell you how proud I'll be to see him leading a blind person, someday."
For further information, visit www.israelguidedog.org or telephone 08-9408213