Israel Scene

Furry angels

One man and his dogs have given hundreds of blind Israelis a new lease on life

On a quiet country road just off of one of Israel’s major highways, about 20 minutes from Tel-Aviv, sits the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in Beit Oved.

Driving into the premises, a gentle chorus of barking greets you from the kennels where the dogs live for the majority of their five month training, before being transferred to the student center where they share a dorm room with their future owner. It is here, over the next four to five weeks, where the two will learn to work as a team.

Initially little more than a series of corrugated iron huts, the premises were recently renovated and now resemble a pint-sized college campus, replete with a small green quad, state-of-the-art student center, and serene walkways.

But the beautiful new campus belies the organization’s humble and difficult beginnings in 1991, which came about purely through the vision of one determined man, who today is the center’s director.

Israeli born Noach Braun was working for Israel’s Nature Authority back in the early 80s. A sighted man, he says he began to hear about the “crazy problem” surrounding blind Israelis and what they had to go through to receive a guide dog. Moved by their plight, Noach determined to do something about it.

That “crazy problem” was the fact that there had been no guide dogs trained in Israel since 1970, necessitating blind Israelis to travel overseas to acquire their dogs – a situation that was fraught with problems for both owner and dog.

Jerusalemite Haim Tsur—now in his sixties—readily explains the problems. His experiences led him to a fortuitous meeting with Braun and the eventual establishment of the IGDCB, Tsur began going blind in his early 20s. Fresh out of the army and in his second year of medical school, he had no idea his weakening vision was a sign of future blindness. An ophthalmology professor noticed Tsur was holding his papers unusually close to his face and suggested he go for testing. The tests revealed that he had holes in his retinas, causing him to slowly go blind.

“Can you imagine a person telling you that?” says Tsur who today is an internationally renowned classical violinist. His kind face recalls the shock of the revelation. “I couldn’t believe what he told me and asked him again if he was serious. I am a strong man. I was an officer in the army and I’d seen a lot of terrible things, but this was still a shock.”

As the news set in, Tsur decided he needed to start planning for his future, and his thoughts turned to a guide dog. “I didn’t want a cane,” he reveals, “because canes are limiting, they slow you down.” But Tsur had another problem. He hated dogs. “I was afraid of them,” he says, “and didn’t like them at all. But my friends kept encouraging me. They said dogs are much better than canes, they help you move faster, they make you more independent.”

It was only after making the decision to acquire a dog, that Tsur began to realize the process was not going to be simple. After all, this was the 1970s, and there were no guide dogs being trained in Israel. Blind Israelis either had to use canes or travel to guide dog training centers in the United States. Which is how Tsur wound up at a training center in North Hollywood—a trip he financed himself. There, he was able to conquer his fear and he returned to Israel with his first guide dog, a German Shepherd named Sabrina. Yet there were still enormous hurdles that both Tsur and Sabrina had to overcome.

“The trip to California involved a difficult flight,” Tsur recalls. “At the time I still had some vision.” But for those who are totally blind, or don’t speak English, Tsur says, “I don’t see how they could have done it.”

And while he gradually got used to working with Sabrina, the dog, he says never really adjusted to life in Israel.

“The curbs and streets are different here and there was no one to turn to for help,” he says.

As Braun explains, with the IGDCB now in existence, his dogs are trained to negotiate problems that are unique to Israel; problems that include cars being parked halfway up the curb, or poles indicating bus stops in the middle of the sidewalk. But most importantly, the dogs are trained in the local language and applicants do not need to take an eleven-hour plane ride to receive a guide dog.

Says Braun, “It’s not only that it was wrong to make a blind person go to LA to get a guide dog, it was also impractical. What if something went wrong, would they fix the problem over e-mail? You need to have a local solution.”

Yet for Tsur, that local solution was still a long way away when he found himself in the mid-80s on a plane to the US once again to acquire a new guide dog. (All guide dogs are “retired” at 7 or 8 years old to allow them to live out the remaining years of their lives as non-working dogs).

This time Tsur traveled to Ohio to receive his new dog. And as fate would have it, it was there that he met Braun, who was studying at the center to become a certified dog trainer.

Braun had made good on his promise to address the lack of a guide dog training facility in Israel, and had spent several years on his own personal odyssey in which he traveled to the United States and England, where he trained to become a guide dog instructor. In the States, Noach received assistance from Norman L. Leventhal, a native of Warrington, PA who helped Noach get accepted into the exclusive training program in Ohio, and to this day is active in fundraising for IDGCB here in the U.S.

From Ohio, Noach traveled to England, to complete his training, but not before brainstorming with Tsur on ways to find funding for the center.

Tsur was instrumental (in more ways than one) in the Center’s initial success, performing in classical concerts round the world to help raise the monies needed to establish the center.

Braun finally returned to Israel in 1990, accompanied by two dogs and a puppy. These dogs became the first students at the Center. And Tsur received the Center’s first Israeli-trained dog, a white Labrador named Tilly.

Today the Center is a thriving venture, breeding its own dogs, mostly Labradors and Golden Retrievers. The cost of training one guide dog from birth until it is matched with its future owner is close to $18,000, and the blind person receives the dog free of charge.

Funding comes mostly from private donors, organizations and foundations, although the Israeli government now covers eight percent of the Center’s annual $700,000 budget.

Although Braun began his dream alone, today the Center is a thriving hive of activity with a multitude of staff and volunteers. Braun’s wife, Orna—a certified kennel manager—is the breeding supervisor and the coordinator of foster families for guide dog puppies.

The foster family or “puppy raising” component of the training is an essential part of the guide dog program—without which the Center could not continue.

Puppies live at the Center until they are two months old, after which they are sent to a foster family, where they learn to become a part of family life and acclimate to the hustle and bustle of daily life. While the IGDCB supplies the foster families with dog food and pays for veterinary expenses, the families must invest time and effort in acclimating the dogs, doing everything from taking them out in public, into cinemas, on buses, and training them to obey simple commands.

Michel and Sarah Goldberg of Rosh Ha’ayin have been puppy raisers for the past four and a half years and are currently raising their fifth dog, Betsy.

“Our children always wanted a dog,” Michel says, “But we spend our summers in America at Camp Ramah and we didn’t want to have to leave the dog in a pound or something for the three months we were gone. So when they came across an advertisement in the paper one day that the IGDCB was looking for foster families, “it was the perfect solution,” says Goldberg. “We could have a dog for the seven or eight months of the year we were in Israel and then give it back to the Center right before we left for camp.”

Upon their return to the Center at 12 months old, the puppies’ five month training gets underway. A typical “class” will start with close to 60 dogs, but almost 50 percent fail the program due to temperament and or health issues. Dogs that flunk out often go back to their foster family or are adopted by Center volunteers.

But those that do graduate are destined to change the lives of their blind owner immeasurably. It’s something that Susan Malkah can attest to.

A native of California, today Malkah lives in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. She received her guide dog, Sam, from IGDCB three years ago.

“Sam has changed my whole life,” she enthuses, “He’s given me my independence back. I used to use two canes to get around, one for support and one for guidance. I was never sure exactly where things were. With Sam, I just tell him where to go and he takes me there.”

Until she received Sam, Malkah was forced to rely on her husband and children to take her places, but today, she says when her kids say, “Hey Mom, do you want to go here? She can say “‘No, its okay. Sam and I will do it.’”

“The chemistry between the blind person and the dog has to be there,” Malkah explains, “At the Center, Noach interviews applicants and assigns them to a specific dog. It’s nice,” she adds, “because you become one. Sam is with me all the time. When I’m sad he’s sad and when I’m happy he’s happy. I call him my furry angel and I can’t imagine my life without him.”

To date, the Center has provided over 120 people with guide dogs. Currently there are 17,000 officially registered blind people in Israel, although unofficial counts put the number much higher.

Over the next few years, IGDCB hopes to provide as many people as possible with locally trained guide dogs, with the aim of graduating between 24 and 30 dogs a year.

For Braun, his job is simply a labor of love. “My passion for my work comes because I think that in this field I can change people’s lives dramatically,” he says. “I can take people who are stuck at home and change their lives. It’s a win-win situation. I take a good dog and a good person and create a better entity. I am a sighted person working with the blind. I see that they live normal lives and it gives me perspective.”

For more information on the IGDCB visit the Center’s website at www.israelguidedog.org
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