Six juvenile Labradors and Golden Retrievers surrounded Yariv Melamed, intently watching the piece of bread the dog trainer held in his hand. Several others wrestled with each other under a bright blue tarp nearby.
They may have English names, but if they pass their training, they will become part of a small group of guide dogs that understand Hebrew commands and become guide dogs for blind people in Israel. Roughly half of the dogs will go on to pass exams in upcoming months.
And the work they do is crucial.
“You really encounter people who are at the bottom of their lives here. They can’t get out of bed,” Melamed said of the center’s work. “We’re part of the rehab.”
The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, located near Moshav Beit Oved in central Israel, is the country’s only accredited guide dog training school. The center trains the dogs for service, including for challenges particular to Israel, but struggles with a lack of awareness for the need in the country and a shortage of funding for the expensive facilities and training.
Founder Noach Braun established the center in 1991. Prior to the school’s establishment, Israel did not have a guide dog center, and blind Israelis needed to pass an English exam, then travel to the US to partner with a dog. The dogs learned their commands in English, and there were no facilities to support them in Israel.
Braun, who did not have a background working with blind people but worked with dogs during his military service in the paratroopers, wanted to continue working with animals after his release from the army. When he learned that Israel lacked a guide dog center, he moved to the US at the age of 26 to learn to train the dogs. After several years, he returned to Israel to open the center.
Today, about 250 of Israel’s 27,000 registered blind people have a guide dog, or around 1 percent. In most countries, the rate is about 1 to 4%, Braun said. The center aims to double the number of active guide dogs in Israel in the next few years.
The center breeds their own Labradors, Golden Retrievers and mixes of the two breeds. Volunteers, mostly university students, adopt the puppies after a few months and foster them for about a year to socialize them and teach them basic obedience.The dogs are given English names, so they will be less likely to mistakenly hear their name on the street. Cats, ubiquitous in Israeli cities, roam around the facility and are cared for by staff to get the dogs used to their presence.
The dogs return to the center when they are about 16-months-old to go through a four-month training course to become guide dogs.
Roughly half of the dogs successfully complete the course. Instructors examine them by introducing them to stimuli, such as sounds, smells and other animals, and gauge their reaction by watching their body language. If a dog is easily distracted, fearful or aggressive, they will be donated to special needs programs, mostly as companion dogs for autistic children, said Melamed, who learned to train dogs in Australia, in order to work at the center. Last year, the center donated about 40 dogs to special needs programs.
Blind people who are interested in partnering with a dog come to the center for three weeks to also go through training. It takes about six months for a pair to become a fully functioning team.
The time and energy invested is worth it, said Herzl Cohen, who received Todd, his Labrador-Retriever mix, from the center several years ago.
Cohen lost his vision completely about 14 years ago, he said.
“If you are blind you are afraid to move your hand because if you move your hand, maybe you will knock over a bottle. You’re afraid to move your leg because maybe you’ll hit something. Slowly, slowly, the blindness paralyzes you,” said Cohen, who is a novelist, musician and retired lawyer.
Now, he travels easily around his Ramat Gan neighborhood, and other areas of Israel, with the help of Todd, he said.
“I get up, put on sandals, wash my face, and come to the door, and Todd comes to the door also. I put on his harness, and I don’t think about it at all. My awareness is not like a person who needs to organize and everything because he’s blind,” Cohen said.
The dogs are expensive to raise and train, though, with each costing over $25,000, said Braun. The center is also building two kennels to raise and train more dogs and shorten waiting times. About 5% of its budget comes from the government. Much of the labor is done by volunteers, and about 20% of the funding comes from Israeli donors, with the rest coming mostly from the United States.
Besides the challenges of raising the dogs, active guide dogs in Israel face particular difficulties in Israel’s hot climate and crowded streets. Sidewalks are narrow and people park their cars and motorcycles on them, and dogs’ feet need to be protected from the hot asphalt during the summer.
“If you compare the Israeli guide dog to the American one, the Israeli one has so much more work,” Melamed said.
Many Israelis are also unaware of the role of guide dogs and needs of blind people, Melamed said. People often approach the dogs and pet them, which can be distracting.
Cohen prefers to let Todd interact with people on the street, he said, both because he knows Todd enjoys it and because it will help more of the public connect with guide dogs.
“Maybe it will take more of my energy, and maybe he will more easily turn to someone nice on the street who is excited to see him, but I’m ready to deal with that,” Cohen said.
Overall, people are understanding and warm towards Todd, Cohen said, and strangers constantly offer him help on the street. About 10% of taxi drivers illegally refuse him service, though, usually because they do not want hair left in their vehicle. He also recognizes that large dogs can be alarming to some people.
There is also a lack of understanding in the blind community, Cohen said. Many blind people feel they don’t have room in their life to take care of a dog, or feel that they lack the patience to raise one or just do not like animals, Cohen said, but he believes after a trial with a trained dog, most would be convinced.
He received his previous dog about two years after losing his sight completely. After a trip to the center at Beit Oved, he quickly understood that partnering with a guide dog was about much more than navigating obstacles on the sidewalk.
“This period of time, these two years where I didn’t have a solution to walk, were very hard. What the dog does for you, he returns to you the experience of movement, in an autonomous way,” Cohen said. “He allows you even to imagine again that the car that travels on the side of the road, you can image it moving, even though you don’t see it. You can return yourself to the experience of movement.”