A new leash on life

Dogs trained at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind accompany more than 240 visually impaired Israelis.

Blind man with seeing eye dog 521 (photo credit: Courtesy IGDCB)
Blind man with seeing eye dog 521
(photo credit: Courtesy IGDCB)
Zohar Sharon knows the literal meaning of the word “handicap” on a golf course. The former IDF bomb disposal expert, now 58, lost his vision in 1976 when a chemical explosive device that he was defusing blew up in his face. But thanks in part to his guide dog, Venus, trained at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind (IGDCB) at Beit Oved, Sharon recently captured the title of World Champion Blind Golfer for the third year in a row.
He first competed in the annual Matthew Varon Memorial Golf Event, held in Palm Springs, California, in 2004. While he credits his caddy, Shimshon Levi, for much of his success, Sharon also acknowledges that his three-year-old guide dog Venus deserves recognition.
“Venus is the first one to greet me in the mornings, and she gets my day off to a good start. She is like my mother and friend all in one. She takes care of me, and I love to be with her too,” he says.
Sharon isn’t the only one of Israel’s more than 25,000 registered blind people (although unofficial estimates place this figure much higher) who are able to travel thanks to their IGDCBtrained guide dogs. More than 240 blind Israelis have now been teamed up with guide dogs. In Israel, as in the rest of the world, only 1 to 4 percent of the blind population have guide dogs, says Noach Braun, who founded the IGDCB in 1991.
Last month, six of them and their canine eyes joined up with a Canadian contingent of the March of the Living to spend five days touring Nazi concentration camps in Poland. On April 18, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the IGDCB group joined some 14,000 people from across the globe in the three-kilometer march from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
“It’s really a powerful statement because, as the Nazis used dogs to kill and maim, we are going to show how dogs are used for independence… and self-worth,” says Sara Gabriel, the executive director of the Canadian Friends of IGDCB.
The Nazis began persecuting their most vulnerable citizens in 1933 after passing a law stating that anyone suffering from a mental illness, physical deformity, blindness or deafness was to be sterilized and was labeled as “life unworthy of life.” By the end of World War II, about 275,000 people with disabilities were murdered, she adds.
Braun explains that as in similar centers throughout the world, Labradors, golden retrievers and first-crosses of the two canine pure breeds are the animals of choice to be trained as guide dogs because of their high responsiveness, intelligence and calm temperament.
The puppies are initially sent to live with regular families to accustom them to human behavior. At the age of one year, selected dogs are sent to the IGDCB for five months of training. The animals that successfully complete the program are then partnered with a blind master, and the human-dog team undergoes a further three weeks of training together.
The Beit Oved campus includes spacious dog runs, whelping kennels and a complete veterinary clinic with an operating room, examining room and diagnostic laboratory, as well as dormitory rooms. Since 1991 more than 400 guide dogs have “graduated” from the center. Some 80 to 100 puppies are raised annually, Braun explains, but only half are found suitable to complete the training.
“Our goal is to have 30 brood bitches providing up to 60 puppies per year. We need to gear ourselves for the expected increase in the number of applicants for guide dogs as a result of greater public awareness and the availability of our vastly improved facilities,” he says.
“However, increased development and growth result in increased expenditures and now, more than ever, we need to rely on our loyal friends and supporters in order to realize our goals and to continue our vital work.”
What did blind Israelis do before the IGDCB was established in 1991?
From 1953 until 1970, Prof. Rudolphina Menzel almost singlehandedly trained seeing-eye dogs. Upon the death of the psychologist and dog trainer, Israel began sending some blind Israelis – civilians as well as war veterans – to training centers in the US.
But this was an unsatisfactory solution. Only English-speaking blind Israelis were sent to American guide-dog schools. Most vision-impaired people here simply never received guide dogs.
Even the lucky ones who did receive seeing-eye dogs from overseas found that if problems arose after the animals’ initial training, there was no one to provide critical after-care service. Hence the creation of the IGDCB.
Any blind Israeli who is physically and emotionally capable of caring for a guide dog can apply to the center. There is no age restriction. While the cost of each successful partnership is $25,000, this invaluable service is provided free of charge.
The IGDCB receives only 5% of its $1.5 million annual budget from the government, explains Braun. The center employs a staff of 24, but relies in large part on the efforts of volunteers to raise public awareness for the need for guide dogs.
While the dogs themselves are interesting, it is the people they are teamed with who are truly remarkable. Gadi Yarkoni was a 19-year-old IDF draftee serving in Lebanon when a ricocheting bullet severed his optic nerve. For several weeks doctors fought to save his eyesight but to no avail. Thanks to his indomitable spirit and his IGDCB guide dog, Yarkoni completed a four-year course in physical therapy at Tel Aviv University. Today he is married and works in his field.
Finding financial donors abroad is an integral part of the IGDCB’s work. In Israel, the center has a growing volunteer corps of friends who raise the puppies for their first year, go riding on tandem bicycles with the blind almost every weekend and otherwise contribute to the IGDCB.
“People who are blind are people first,” says Braun. “Blind people often feel isolated, so your willingness to engage them in conversation will be a mutually rewarding experience. All of our graduates are fascinating people with wonderful stories to tell. Take the time to learn something about them; you’ll be glad that you did.” •