Harnessed to freedom

Guide dogs give blind people self-confidence to achieve social integration, to study and find employment. Providing this freedom is the aim of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.

Dror Carmeli (right), his guide dog Lynne and puppy raiser Yoav Eisenberg (photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)
Dror Carmeli (right), his guide dog Lynne and puppy raiser Yoav Eisenberg
(photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)
It is said that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, but that’s certainly not the case in Israel’s only internationally accredited guide dog school.
Located near Moshav Beit Oved, the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind breeds, raises and trains guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired. Currently 36 partnerships between blind people and guide dogs are being created, but with the completion of the new Puppy Development and Training Campus being built on site, the number of partnerships will significantly increase. Currently there are 250 such partnerships throughout Israel.
The Center was opened 26 years ago by Noach Braun, who served as a paratrooper and dog trainer in the IDF.
Braun was always interested in working with animals and wanted to do something to help people. After completing his army service, he was surprised to learn that there was no place in Israel to train guide dogs and partner them with blind people. There was only one way to get a guide dog and the process was long, challenging and expensive.
First, a candidate had to pass an English test administered by the Welfare Ministry. A candidate who passed then had to travel to the US at his or her own expense.
Training abroad took a month, and then there was generally another period of two weeks of getting used to the new partnership. This was a difficult position for most, as the blind student was separated from family for an extended period of time.
Once arriving back in Israel with the dog, there was no local center to turn to for any kind of follow-up and support.
As a result of all of the above, only a limited number of people could benefit from receiving a guide dog. The government didn’t believe that having a guide dog was necessary. This was at a time when the only work available for most blind people was in sheltered factories where, for example, they would be putting bristles on brooms. Accessibility to the workplace for blind people simply did not exist.
Guide dogs  (photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)Guide dogs (photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)
There was little understanding that a person with any disability could successfully find employment and become fully integrated into society.
Determined to open a certified guide-dog center in Israel, Braun traveled to the US with hopes of finding a school that would teach him the necessary skills to realize his dream. He was turned down by 10 major guide dog training facilities because no school was interested in accepting a student whose goal was to train guide dogs in a foreign country. Finally, with the intervention of Yeshaya Barzel, the consul of the Soviet Jewry Desk at the Israeli Consulate in New York, Braun was introduced to Norman Leventhal, a Pennsylvania businessman active in Jewish causes.
Leventhal reached out to the same guide dog schools Braun had approached unsuccessfully and finally extracted a “yes” from the director of Pilot Dogs in Columbus, Ohio, who agreed to accept Braun into their Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Training Program. After two years of instruction there, Braun entered the training program at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in England, where he became a guide-dog mobility instructor in December 1990.
Meanwhile, Braun’s wife, Orna, was learning how to establish a dog breeding program. At the same time, Norman Leventhal was busy establishing a non-profit organization through which to raise funds to build a guide-dog center in Israel. The three finally harvested the fruits of their efforts on January 1, 1991, when the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind officially opened. Since then, the school has been responsible for hundreds of partnerships between blind Israelis and guide dogs. Unfortunately, this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the demand. The waiting list for a guide dog in Israel is one year and can be even longer for schools abroad.
Guide dogs in Israel are mostly Labradors and golden retrievers, with a smattering of German shepherds.
Most of them are born at the center, but a few are donated by sister centers around the world.
After six to eight weeks following birth, the puppies are weaned from their mothers, who are returned to their foster families. The puppies, for their first year, are placed mostly with university students who take them to class, the mall, restaurants, on train and bus trips, elevators, escalators, all over. As service dogs, these animals are legally allowed to enter places where other dogs are not welcomed, the goal being to expose them to a wealth of locations and stimuli to get them accustomed to noise, crowds and obstacles.
During this year, the foster families follow a strict routine set for them by the center, which also provides all necessary food, medical care and training. After 12 months, the families part from their dogs in a separation ceremony hosted by the center.
“It’s really tough to say goodbye, but knowing it’s for a good cause makes it easier,” says Braun.
Not all dogs make the grade to be a guide dog; only 50% pass the stringent test administered by the center.
Though these dogs may not have met the strict requirements needed to be a guide dog, they still have qualities suitable for serving, so they are given to special-needs families, including children with autism or visual impairment and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
For all its working life, a guide dog will ignore distractions in order to lead his partner safely and so must be constantly focused. This is intense work.
“At the age of 10, dogs, like people, get older, slow down and possibly even develop health issues,” Braun explains. “We want to retire the dogs while they’re still healthy and functioning at full capacity.”
Guide dogs are retired after eight to 10 years of active work, and either stay with their partners as “regular dogs” or are given to someone on a long waiting list of applicants.
From the puppy-raising department: (from left) Orna Braun, Dana Halperin, Eli Ben-Boher (photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)From the puppy-raising department: (from left) Orna Braun, Dana Halperin, Eli Ben-Boher (photo credit: ELI BEN BOHER)
Training to become a guide dog consists of five months of intensive daily workouts using the “clicker method.” A dog is rewarded for positive behavior with a food treat, and the clicker tells the dog what behavior will earn him that treat. Learning topics include maneuvering around obstacles in public places, ignoring loud sounds, safely crossing the street, lying quietly for long periods of time and walking in a straight line without being distracted by sights and smells.
Guide dogs give their partners the independence to walk with confidence and security at an average pace – a marked improvement over the white canes traditionally offered as mobility aids for the visually impaired.
The canes warn of an obstacle but do not take the person around it.
MATCHING A dog with its new partner is a meticulous process. The center takes into account the physical and emotional needs of each client. For example, a petite person would be paired with a small dog, and a very active person with a high-energy dog. The match is like a marriage, since the dog and his partner are together 24/7.
The dogs are available at no cost to every blind and visually impaired Israeli citizen who, upon returning home with his dog, gets a monthly government stipend of NIS 350 to cover food and veterinary visits.
In addition, clients maintain regular contact with the center, since having a support network is vital for the success of a partnership.
“A guide dog is not a car where you take it in for 10,000 kilometer check-up,” says Braun.
“The dogs are our responsibility and we visit each client to ensure that the partnership is successful. This means that the dogs are functioning as expected and required, and that any issues regarding guiding, the behavior of the dog or other related issues can be dealt with. It is essential that the dog is healthy and maintained properly. This support is the key to the success of a partnership.”
Before being partnered with a guide dog or replacement dog (when a dog reaches retirement age), clients train with their new dog for three weeks on the center campus. They live on campus, staying in a comfortable dorm-like room and eating their meals in the center’s dining room. This is followed by a oneweek home-training course that includes learning new routes to regular destinations such as places of work, school, the bank, the grocery store and the doctor’s office. With so much responsibility involved in training these animals, it’s no surprise that the trainers undergo three years of training in order to receive international accreditation. They are recruited via a rigorous application process.
When a guide dog wears his harness, it is on the job and becomes the eyes of his partner. Nothing distracts it from the responsibility of catering to the safety of the partner – not even a juicy steak held under its nose.
“Once the harness is taken off, a guide dog becomes a ‘regular dog’ and knows that he/she isn’t working,” Braun explains.
“When the harness is on, the dog knows that it is on the job, maintaining focus, concentration and guiding its partner safely to wherever he/she wants to go. 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.”
A guide dog opens the world to its partner. Dror Carmeli of Ashdod was slowly losing his vision. As a result, he increasingly stayed home or nearby and stopped doing almost all of his usual activities. Six years ago, he was partnered with Lynne, and his life totally changed. Carmeli regained his independence and has been taking full advantage of it – and then some.
“At first, I started running to show myself and the world that I could do it. Now I run because I can,” he says proudly. “I’ve run in five marathons including New York City, and am training to do a triathlon. I’m also part of a biking group for sighted and visually impaired riders. Before I was partnered with Lynne, for me to even think of any of these activities was unheard of, and now look at me go! All of this is because of the independence and feeling of security I get from her.”
In running events, the blind person is tethered to a sighted runner. On bike adventures, a sighted person sits in the front while his partner is on the back of their tandem bike. Both pedal as they ride over rough, hilly terrain on trips that could last for days while their dogs, off duty, are with family or friends.
The center sponsors several events, including sending six clients to Poland to take part in the March of the Living on Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Braun’s office, there is a picture of the men, their dogs and chaperons outside Auschwitz. The men are standing tall, holding on to their dogs’ harness, as they proudly hoist a huge Israeli flag.
The center also visits schools to raise awareness of visual impairment and the use of guide dogs, and introduces pupils to real guide dogs and their partners.
Soldiers are given tours of the center and there is also the opportunity to do National Service there. Volunteers are an integral part of the center family and are gladly welcome.
The government subsidizes only 5% to 6% of the center’s operating costs; the remaining 95% of its budget is covered by donations from the US, Canada, the UK and other countries. It costs approximately $25,000 to train a guide dog from the moment of birth until it leaves the center with his partner, and is retired after eight to 10 years.
“For years, I swam against the current until I was able to change all the ‘noes’ to ‘yeses’ and get the center running successfully,” says Braun.
“I’m always concerned with financial stability and improvements for our clients and our dogs. We’ve given a new life to hundreds of people and that’s with the small amount of monetary help we get from the government.
I hope to be able to continue for many years.
“These extraordinary intelligent and highly trained dogs provide safe mobility – which is a key to accessibility and integration into the economic and social fabric of our society.”
Visitors are welcome to visit the center by appointment. During the intermediate days of Passover there will be an open house with guided tours. Info: (08) 940-8213.