Nov. 17, 2005

Canadians raising funds to train seeing-eye dogs for blind Israelis

by Gil Zohar


Toronto philanthropist Bluma Appel has visited Israel many times. But on a recent trip here to the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind (IGDC) at Beit Oved 20 km southeast of Tel Aviv, she gained a new perspective of the country - that of the 20,000 vision-impaired Israelis, including those blinded in terrorist attacks and IDF soldiers who lost their sight in the line of duty - for whom a seeing-eye dog trained to understand Hebrew commands and accustomed to the streetscape of the country's often cluttered sidewalks and crowded buses can mean independent living.

Appel was so impressed by the 15-year-old facility that she decided to establish a "Canadian Friends" of the IGDC to help support the centre's training of seeing-eye dogs.

"In addition to people who have lost their vision through disease or accident, or who were born sightless, it was the blind soldiers who really touched my heart," Appel told The Tribune. "To achieve independence and mobility through the use of guide dogs, well, seeing is believing."

As in similar centres throughout the world, Labrador and 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 responsive and intelligent, and calm temperaments, explained IGDC director Noach Braun, 44.

The puppies are initially sent to live with regular families to accustom them to human behaviour. At the age of one year, selected dogs are sent to the IGDC for five months of training. Those animals which successfully complete the program are then partnered with a blind master, and the human-dog team undergo 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 230 are guide dogs have "graduated" from the centre. Some 45 puppies are raised annually, explained Susan Shalev, the IGDC's resource development officer. 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." said Shalev. "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."

The IGDC includes the Bronfman Health and Reproduction Centre, built with a U.S. $250,000 grant in 1999-2000 from the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Foundation, in which dogs are bred domestically, thereby reducing the need to import them from places like Canada. The Bronfmans continue to support the Centre's programs through an annual grant of U.S. $17,500.

What did blind Israelis do before the IGDC was established in 1991?

From 1953 until 1970, Prof. Rudolphina Menzel almost single-handedly trained seeing-eye dogs. Upon the death of the psychologist and dog trainer, Israel began sending some blind Israelis, both civilians and war veterans, to training centers in the United States.

But this was an unsatisfactory solution. Only English-speaking blind Israelis were sent to American guide dog schools. Most vision-impaired people simply never received a guide dog.

Even the lucky ones who did receive a seeing-eye dog from overseas found that if a problem arose after the animal's initial training, there was no one to provide critical after-care service. Hence the creation of the IGDC.

Any blind Israeli who is physically and emotionally capable of caring for a guide dog can apply to the Centre. There is no age restriction. While the cost of each successful partnership is $25,000, this invaluable service is provided free of charge.

The IGDC receives only eight per cent of its U.S. $1-million budget from the Israeli government, explained Braun. The centre employs a staff of 16, but relies in large part on the efforts of volunteers to raise public awareness for the need for guide dogs, he noted.

While the dogs themselves are interesting, it is the people who they are teamed with who are truly remarkable. Itzik Ben David, an IGDC alumnus, is now employed as the Centre's community relations officer.

Gadi Yarkony was a 19-year-old IDF draftee serving in Lebanon when a bullet ricocheted, severing his optic nerve. For several weeks doctors fought to save his sight but to no avail. Thanks to his indomitable spirit and his IGDC 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 donors abroad is an integral part of the IGDC's work. "Friends of" groups currently exist in the United States and Britain. Appel recently started a Canadian chapter under the chairmanship of Dr. Morris Samson, a Toronto veterinarian with a clinic in the Beaches who is a frequent visitor to Israel.

Known as the Foundation for Canine Companions to the Blind, the group was recently registered as a charity in Ottawa. "We're networking and getting the name out there," said Dr. Samson. Working and companion dogs "become people's lives. They become people's eyes," he added.

"Jewish people don't know too much about how great dogs are for peoples' lives, and these dogs are phenomenal."

Dr. Samson recently arranged for two mixed-breed Labrador and Golden Retriever puppies to be donated to the IGDC by the Ottawa-based Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs are now undergoing training after making "aliya".

Appel has generously agreed to match all donations raised.

For more information see or contact Bluma Appel at 416.964.2710.