It took only 30 seconds for my first misconception about blind pedestrians using guide dogs to be disabused. I’d assumed a steady,“strolling” pace when walking. But coming out of her Tel Aviv apartment building with Heather Stone and her guide dog, I was left in the dust within seconds. Heather and “Tinka” had zipped down two blocks before I could catch up.
Heather had recently acquired her two-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever from the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. Established 30 years ago, today the center creates more than 80 human-canine partnerships every year (PTSD dogs and companion dogs for special needs families), training them from birth till they’re ready to go to their new owners. The center is the only internationally accredited guide dog school in the Middle East.
People who use guide dogs are able reach their optimum efficiency in walking and navigating. Heather relates that an earlier potential guide dog had proven too slow for her. “The trainers thought they had a match at one point, and did a ‘test run’ with me. They had me marked down as a slow walker, but that’s just because my neighborhood has so much construction going on with lots of obstacles, so I was walking slowly with a cane. But that’s not me, I walk fast,” she declares.
The Center is located on a 17.5 dunam (4.25 acre) piece of land in Moshav Beit Oved in the center of the country. The spacious campus includes a student center with living quarters for new owners in training, dog runs, an obstacle course and maze, whelping kennels and a complete veterinary clinic. The dormitory houses six hotel rooms modified to accommodate blind persons: no sharp edges, specific textures on the walls, an area for a dog to be tied up if necessary, and protrusions on the banister in the corridor indicating where the door to the room is. The lounge, with a piano, computers and games, is also organized in a way so that no one bumps into furniture.
The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have meant that owners in training have not been able to stay in the dormitory. Thus Heather’s training sessions had to take place at her home and neighborhood. (Normally the course covers three weeks at the Center and one week at home.)
The Center was the brain child of Noach Braun, a former dog trainer in the Israeli military, who dreamed of establishing a center for training seeing-eye dogs for blind Israelis. With the help of Norman Leventhal, a Pennsylvania businessman and Jewish social activist, Braun was able to enter training programs in the US and England to become a guide-dog mobility instructor. Leventhal, who died at the age of 90 last January, set up the nonprofit fundraising arm for the Israeli center, which eventually allowed the opening of the Israel Guide Dog Center in 1991. The Center moved to its present location in 1993. Over the years, the Center has received support from the Israeli government and major donors, including Lady Elizabeth Kaye of the UK and three Friends organizations in the US, UK and Canada.
The Israel Guide Dog Center runs its own highly selective breeding program, using Labradors, Golden Retrievers, mixes of the two breeds and some German Shepherds. When puppies are around two months old, the first stage of training begins when they’re handed over to temporary “puppy raisers,” usually university students, who take the dogs into their homes for early socialization, before guide-dog-specific training can begin.
Each dog sports a bright blue identification shirt reading “Guide Dog Puppy in Training” and are taught basic commands. The Center pays for all the puppy’s food and veterinary care, and the puppy raisers get constant support, monitoring and training. The dogs return to the Center when they are about 14 months old. It’s never easy for the foster people to say goodbye, like raising a baby you have to give back after a year.
Not all the dogs will actually become guide dogs for the blind. Once they are assessed after they return to the Center, 35% will enter the five-month guide dog training course or become breeders. Others will be “career changed” – trained to become support dogs for Israeli army veterans with PTSD – or given as companion dogs to families with special needs.
The designated guide dogs undergo rigorous training which involves exposing them to challenges particular to Israel. The obstacle course on the campus includes a variety of physical hurdles. The dogs are trained specifically to be able to navigate Israel’s physical environment, such as bus stand posts, streetlights in the middle of sidewalks, concrete barriers at street corners or even cars parked half on the sidewalk.
“One of the functions of the guide dog is to go around obstacles, to judge heights and spaces, but it has to learn that it’s not just for itself, but also the human. They work together as a team, as one unit,” says Dennis Allon, director of resource development.
One of the things that makes guide dogs for the blind so distinctive is that they are trained to refuse bad commands, an action termed “intelligent disobedience.”
“The dogs are taught not only to obey commands, but also when to disobey, if, for instance, they’re ordered to walk into traffic. Since the person giving the command is blind, the dog must understand when it’s not safe,” explains Allon.
When they are finally trained the dogs and their prospective owners are subject to a meticulous matching program. Each “shidduch” (match) is carefully evaluated, matching the qualities of the human being with the dog, including how active the person is. If an older person has balance issues, for example, he would need a larger dog.
The successful guide dog “graduates” are matched with blind or visually impaired owners. Heather Stone waited nearly a year once she decided she wanted a guide dog. Originally from New Jersey, the 56-year-old attorney was a partner in a prestigious Tel Aviv law firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, when three years ago she lost her eyesight overnight following routine brain surgery.
“I was learning to use a cane, and waiting for it to become ‘second nature’ as promised, but it never happened, never comfortably,” she relates.
Inside her spacious apartment I’m disabused of another misconception – that a guide dog is “on duty” all the time. Not true. Once the long-handled harness has been taken off the dog becomes a regular pet, running about the house, playing with toys, rolling over on her back to have her tummy scratched. But once in harness, the dog is “on duty.” “At home the harness is never on because the purpose of a guide dog is to work outside the home, allowing a blind or visually impaired person to get around with self-confidence, independently and with full mobility,” explains Center founder Noach Braun.
“When I’m outside with Tinka, I’m really walking again,” says Heather. “She takes me places, and goes around obstacles I don’t even know I’ve passed. She does it in a way that I would be doing if I were sighted walking alone. It is so freeing, so liberating.”Today, about 250 of Israel’s 27,000 registered blind people have a guide dog, or around one percent. It takes many humans to condition a fully successful dog and raising and training the dogs is an expensive project, costing about $55,000 per dog from breeding through retirement. The Israel Guide Dog Center’s annual operating budget is just over NIS 11 million ($33.2 m), of which only seven percent comes from the Israel government. The rest of the funding comes from donors in Israel and around the world (through the Friends organizations in the US, Canada and UK). For more information: Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, +972-8-940-8213; [email protected]; https://israelguidedog.org.il/en/.