Both Minty and Gibor hit the ground running when they made aliya.Gibor, who came from Long Island, and Minty, who hails from London, each arrived with a good grasp of Hebrew and had good jobs waiting. As soon as they complete a five-month training course at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, they'll go out to serve as loving canine shadows for two of the country's estimated 23,000 blind people.
Although most of the guide dogs trained by the center are sabras, specially bred and born in the center's whelping kennels, exceptions can be made. The human foster families in New York and London who accepted the weeks-old balls of fur each agreed to raise and socialize the pups using only Hebrew commands.
The need for guide dogs who respond to Hebrew served as motivation for founder Noach Braun when he established the IGDCB in 1991. "During the 1960s, psychologist Dr. Rudolphina Menzel trained guide dogs for blind Israelis," Braun recalls. "But after she passed away in 1970, there wasn't anyone to carry on. Instead qualified blind Israelis traveled to the United States for dogs and to receive their own training. That wasn't ideal. It meant that in Israel blind people were twice disadvantaged: First, they're blind, and second, unless they could communicate in English well enough to pass a test, they couldn't qualify for US dogs. They'd never be able to have the tremendous life enrichment, the independence and mobility a guide dog offers."
Braun, who'd worked with dogs as a paratrooper in the IDF, knew what dogs could do. As soon as he completed his army service, he began trying to establish a local center to train guide dogs. "At first I tried to get it going from here, using the telephone and e-mail," Braun says. "That didn't work. Finally, with the help of Norman Leventhal of Warrington, Pennsylvania, I went to Columbus, Ohio, and spent several months being trained myself. When I came back, and again with Norman's help, we established the IGDCB."
TODAY THE center - a lovely first-class campus-like establishment in Beit Oved, near Tel Aviv - maintains about a dozen guide dog mothers who give birth to specially bred puppies, Labradors, golden retrievers, or half-Lab, half-golden mixes. The puppies remain at the center for eight weeks, and are then placed with foster human families, who raise them through their first year, socializing them, taking them everywhere, accustoming them to every kind of environment, event and activity.
The Lamberts of Long Island, New York were the first non-Israeli family to raise a puppy for the center, a pup they named Gibor. Although Gibor was their first dog for the center, they had loads of experience. "Gibor was our eighth dog," Jeff Lambert says in a telephone interview. "It started about 15 years ago when the whole family happened to go to a mall in the Berkshires. A blind woman approached us, asking for support for a walkathon her school, the Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, was sponsoring. It sounded very interesting, so when the walkathon took place, we decided to go. No one in our family suffers from blindness, but professionally, it's related. My first job was with the Helen Keller Center working with people who were both blind and deaf. Now I administer a program to help disabled university students, many of whom are blind. So guide dogs interested me.
"We arrived at the walkathon and began walking and talking with a man who was both blind and deaf. Since I know how to communicate using sign language in his hand, he told me his story. He was an amazing guy, an engineer for a telephone company. He told us how having a guide dog had allowed him to totally reclaim his life. As we talked, we passed by a tent that had a huge sign reading, 'Puppies' - that was the beginning of the end. It was just impossible not to fall in love with all the little dogs, all of whom were looking for foster homes for a year of socialization.
"We completed an application and about a week later, were called in for an interview. It wasn't long before Jacque, our first puppy, came into our lives. After Jacque, we raised two more dogs for Guiding Eyes, and then raised assistance dogs for people using wheelchairs."
The idea to raise a dog for the Israel Center came about after one of the dogs the Lamberts raised for Guiding Eyes ended up in Jerusalem, guiding a blind pianist. "As was the system then, the pianist spent four weeks in the US learning to work with Ramsey, which turned out to be a dog we'd raised. When we met, he told me how he thought Ramsey was such a perfect name. I remember saying I wasn't so sure about that - Ramses was the name of a pharaoh, after all. But he said, 'No, Ramsey sounds like remez, the Hebrew word for hint. Ramsey always 'hints' where I should go.'
"When we next visited Israel, Ramsey and his owner took me on a long tour of Jerusalem. With Ramsey in the lead, we walked to all the places the pianist went, doing what he did. Along the way, I pointed out things he and Ramsey passed by every day, but the pianist had never seen - like the big statute of a horse on King George Avenue. He hadn't known that was there. We walked over to it, and he put his hands on the horse, and saw it for the first time. That day was unforgettable."
There's a religious dimension inherent in raising guide dogs, Lambert says. "Maimonides tells us that the highest form of charity is to help someone become independent, and that's what a guide dog does. They give blind people their lives back."
Gibor was the Lamberts' first Israeli puppy, and now Dvash, a honey-colored Lab, is the second. "There's very close cooperation between the Guiding Eyes Center in New York and the Israel center," Lambert notes. "Both Gibor and Dvash were born at Guiding Eyes, but they're raised specifically for the Israel center, using simple Hebrew commands. Sometimes when Gibor and I were out and about, some wise guy would ask, 'So does this dog speak Hebrew?' I'd say, 'No, but he understands Hebrew.' So I'd show them. 'Sit!' I'd say, and Gibor ignored me. Then I said 'Shev,' and he sat. 'Come' I'd say, and Gibor paid no attention, but when I said 'Bo,' he came. That blows people away."
Gibor went everywhere with Lambert. "I took him to class every day where he'd sit under my desk. We were regular riders on the Long Island Railroad. On Shabbat, I'd take him to synagogue - every time, when we came to the Aleinu, at the end of the service, Gibor would stand up, all by himself. People couldn't believe it - there's this davening dog!"
The Lamberts are the only US family raising puppies for Israel, but in London, Michael and Gillian Stoller raised Minty in exactly the same way. "I'd raised six puppies for Guide Dogs in England," says Gillian Stoller from her home in London. "After that, I raised several hearing dogs for deaf people. When I heard about the Israel program, I contacted them, and said I'd like to raise a dog for them. We received Minty when she was just six weeks old from the London Guide Dogs. She was so tiny - just a little puff of fur. She was a very good dog right from the beginning, but at night, I put a ticking clock in her bed, so she wouldn't be so lonely."
THE STOLLERS love animals. Cara, their cocker spaniel, and three cats also share their home. "That's good training, too," Stoller says. "Minty loved Cara and the cats. Sometimes they'd all crawl into Minty's crate and curl up together."
Minty accompanied Stoller just about everywhere. "I took her to concerts, to cafes, all different kinds of places, making sure she felt comfortable in situations of all kinds. She wore a little jacket that read, 'Guide Dog Puppy in Training,' and people would stop to ask questions. One time I was standing at a station waiting for the train. As it rolled in, a man grabbed my elbow and started to help me on the train. It was a little embarrassing - he was only trying to help. Sometimes I'd drive Minty and I to some shop or cafÃ©, and when we'd get out of the car, people's eyes would really pop. Could a woman with a guide dog really be driving a car?"
Gibor and Minty - and in a few months Dvash - will soon be giving three blind Israelis the kind of life many of never expected to have again, the kind of independence, freedom and confidence in moving around that only a new pair of eyes can provide.
But as much as the blind owners will benefit, the families who raise puppies insist that the biggest blessing comes to them. "Having a guide dog puppy in the family for a year opened so many doors for us I can't even list them all," Jeff Lambert says. "Gibor and now Dvash gave us experiences we'd never have without them, allowed us to meet people we'd never have met. Because of them, we went out into the community to talk about the Israel Guide Dog Center, and that helps them help others. Sometimes I take the dog to local schools to tell the young people about guide dogs and all the things they can do. For the kids, it helps them become more sensitive to animals as well as helping them understand some of the difficulties people face when they can't see.
"We also feel good about helping Israel. Many of Israel's blind are soldiers who lost their sight in battle. Helping them live a fuller, richer life is a special blessing."
Pepper goes to college
At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, there's a waiting list for students who want to raise a guide dog puppy. Every year, about 25 of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind's puppies come to Beersheba to live with BGU students, attend classes, do everything and go everywhere the students go.
"For students, raising a guide dog puppy is perfect," one of the puppy parents, Gal Shtothaner, says. "Since most of us don't know where or how we'll be living in a year or two, having a puppy for just a year is great. Having a dog is expensive, too, but because the center supplies the puppies and pays for all the food and veterinary care, it's possible. Having a puppy in the house is fun, too."
Anat Landau and Noam Tirosh, both 26 and both students at BGU, raised Pepper, a handsome half-Lab, half-golden retriever. "Pepper was our first puppy," Landau says, adding that she and Tirosh, who plan to be married in June, subsequently raised two other puppies, Dora and Dinka. During the year Pepper was part of their household, Landau was a first-year student in physiotherapy. Pepper went along to all her classes.
When Pepper returned to the center for his final training, he excelled in everything. In August 2007, Pepper was paired with Maoz Chabob, 23, a blind student at Tel Aviv University. Chabob started having vision problems when he was just 12, and by the time he was 18, a combination of disease and trauma rendered him totally blind. "The possibility of a guide dog was raised while I was in rehabilitation in Jerusalem," Chabob says. "We made a trip to the center in Beit Oved, and I had a try with a dog. It was wonderful - I had no problem trusting the dog. We did fine right from the beginning. I knew that having a dog's help in getting around would be so much better than using a stick.
"At the center, they wanted me to try two different dogs. They were both great, but I really loved Pepper. They didn't tell me at first, but I was really hoping I'd get him. I was so happy when I realized he'd be mine. I did the center's short course, learning how to care for him and how to work with him. I stayed at the center for one week, then had two more weeks of training at my home in Hadera. After that we were alone - no problems. Pepper is just the best dog. I've always loved dogs and had a dog myself when I was younger. But now Pepper is my constant companion, 24 hours a day. He sleeps by my bed."
As it happens, puppy-raiser Anat Landau and blind student Maoz Chabob share more than just Pepper. At TAU Chabob also studies physiotherapy, so when the two finally met at the center, they had a lot to talk about. "I told him that if he had any questions about that first year in physiotherapy, he could just ask Pepper," Landau laughs. "He's been to every class!"
For more information: Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, (08) 940-8213, www.israelguidedog.org.
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