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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Eyes to the World published Hamodia Februar2, 2011

Eyes to the World

An Eye Opening Israeli Program

By Debbie Shapiro

Sunday morning I was up early to catch the number 110 bus to Modiin to meet Lisa Baron Haet, International Liaison of IGDCB, Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. From the bus stop Ms. Baron Haet drove me in her bright yellow car to the IGDCB campus, located some twenty minutes south of Tel Aviv. I had seen these amazing animals at work, leading blind people through the treacherous Jerusalem streets, where cars are often parked smack in the middle of the sidewalk and piles of building material and low-hanging trees make pedestrian navigation a real challenge even for those fully sighted, but I only recently found out that these dogs are now being bred and trained not far from my home.

In the last ten years, IGDCB has given hundreds of blind Israelis the gift of independence. When Guy Simchi became blind at the age of 33, he felt the outside world close before him. "The fear and despair was so powerful, I just wanted to go to bed and stay there for the rest of my life." He hated using the cane. "Everywhere I walked, I was accompanied by the noise of its tap-tapping on the ground. Once in a while, I would inadvertently hit the legs of people passing by and often bumped into things- electric poles, trees, people. I felt like a failure."

All that changed January, 2007 when Simchi was paired with Turner, a black Lab. "Today, Simchi and Turner are practically inseparable. The dog accompanies him when he walks his son to preschool and even joins him while he counsels clients in his position as a psychiatric social worker. For Simchi, his dog, Turner, has "lit up the darkness for me."

IGDCB is the brainchild of Noach Braun. Braun, a former kibbutznik, got his first experience working with dogs while serving in the Israeli Defense Force. Upon completing his service, he decided to become a guide dog trainer, as it would combine his love of animals with his desire to help his fellow Israelis. He took his initial two years of training in the Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Training Program at Pilot Dogs, Columbus, Ohio, and then continued his studies in England. In 1991, Braun returned home to open the first guide dog school in Israel. Meanwhile, his wife, Orna, studied dog breeding, which, in today's high-tech world involves genetic research to produce intelligent and resilient animals.

IGDCB's first graduating pair was Chaim Tzur, a concert violinist from Jerusalem with Tillie, a Labrador retriever that was given as a puppy to Noach by the guide dog school in London. Tzur lived together with Braun and his family while receiving his instruction and training. Since then, Braun, together with his wife and twenty-two staff members, have graduated three hundred and thirty-seven partnerships.

@A Visit to the Center

Pulling up into the parking lot just outside the center, I have visions of huge German shepherds jumping on me while trying to lick my face, and pray that I don't faint on the spot. But although I see many people walking around and pass an obstacle course designed to train dogs to navigate difficult terrain, I don't encounter any dogs, nor do I hear barking (whew!).

As we walk up to Ms. Baron Haet's second-floor office, she says, "I got involved with the Center when I fostered one of their puppies. When puppies are about two months old they're sent to foster families that teach them the skills they will need to begin their training program. The foster families get them used to being around people and introduce them to a variety of new situations, such as construction sites, busy highways and crowded shopping malls. We train them not to beg at the table or chase cats, and to obey basic commands such as 'sit' or 'come.' After I started working here, I would bring my puppy, Angie, to work with me" – she points to an empty spot next to the wall – "that was where he would stay while I worked. After devoting hours to walking him and taking care of his needs, when he was one year old, we returned him to the Center, where he started the intensive five month training course to become a Guide Dog."

Angie was one of the 40% that do not pass the Guide Dog Training Course. Although it succeeded in navigating the obstacle courses and obeying the trainer, it was slightly hyperactive and did not have the patience necessary to guide a blind person. Instead, Angie is living with a blind child and his family, to acclimate the child to having a dog in the house so that  it will be easier for him to get used to working with a guide dog when he get older. Sometimes dogs that don't pass the test are given to autistic children to help them learn to communicate with the world around him.

Ms. Baron Haet introduces me to some of the staff. Many of them have also adopted puppies, and their dogs come with them to the office. I am amazed that the animals remain quietly on their mats. But the moment Ms. Baron Haet starts petting a large white Labrador, the animal grabs a toy and brings it over to us, hoping that we'll play with him.

In the last office, I meet Yitzchak Ben David, IGDCB's Community and Corporate Public Relations Director, and a Guide Dog user since 1994. While Yitzchak is busy answering emails and responding to telephone calls, his Guide Dog is off duty and free to roam the halls or sniff the flowers. But the moment Yitzchak harnesses him with the special Guide Dog harness, it has one mission – to guide its partner and lead him away from danger.

In the hallway, Ms. Baron Haet introduces me to Sagit Kirson, IGDCB's Volunteer Coordinator, who's training a group of volunteers to work with the clients. I notice that the volunteers are carrying blindfolds. "As part of their sensitivity training, they're going to experience for a short time some of the challenges of being blind, especially navigating new terrain," Ms. Kirson explains.

It takes an entire month of intensive one-on-one work with a trainer for a blind person and a dog to become a genuine team. The students spend three weeks working with a trainer at the center, and an additional week of training at home, where they learn to navigate the specific challenges of their own neighborhood. "At first, most of our clients find it extremely difficult –- even traumatic -- to leave their familiar surroundings and live at the Center. At home, they know where everything is and are able to get around easily. But here, everything is new and different and it's a real challenge for them to learn to get around."

As we walk through the Center, Ms. Baron Haet points out that everything in the building is designed to make it easier for people with limited vision to find their way around. There is a wide yellow strip running down the center of each hallway and path, and bathroom fixtures are all bright yellow. "Yellow is the last color that blind people lose the ability to see," Ms. Baron Haet explains, "so some of our legally blind clients with residual vision are able to discern it."  The flooring in front of the stairs and outer doors is also yellow, and include raised bumps to warn the clients to be careful of the steps ahead. In contrast, the flooring adjacent to the walls is black and roughly textured to prevent the clients from bumping into them. There is a large tactile model of the entire campus prominently displayed near the front entrance. Its removable roof allows the students to get a hands-on feel of the building layout, and, when pushed, numerous buttons provide audio explanations of every detail. For a split second, I close my eyes and imagine what it must be like to “feel” my way around the world.

Before leaving the main building to meet the dogs, Ms. Baron Haet takes me to the dormitory. In addition to the spacious bedrooms, there are two dog grooming rooms, where the clients are taught to care for their dogs. "Many of our clients live alone, so we train them how to use their sense of smell and touch to detect any abnormality in their dog, such as a runny nose or cut paws. Since we remain responsible for the dogs' veterinary care, if there's any problem that the client can't cope with, we send one of our trainers to take care of it, and return the dog to the client in top condition."

@With the Trainers

Outside, several trainers are working with the dogs. I watch, fascinated, as one trainer holds a piece of hot, aromatic sausage in front of the dog's nose, then flips it in the air and shakes it up and down to entice him to eat, while the dog's main trainer quietly tells him not to. "We're teaching the dog to conquer his yetzer hara, which in a dog is its instinct,” the trainer laughs. “That's because when a dog is in its harness, ‘at work,’ no matter how strong the desire or pressing the need, the animal's energies must be channeled into serving its partner.” After all, a dog going off to the side to smell the flowers will drag his partner with him.

"We use this tiny apparatus, called a clicker, to train the animals." Ms. Baron Haet points to the tiny piece of plastic in the trainer's hand. "When pressed, it makes a clicking noise. At first, when the trainer clicks, he simultaneously gives the dog a tiny treat, so that the dog associates the clicking sound with a treat. Then the click itself becomes positive reinforcement, and the treats are given only occasionally. Eventually, the behavior is so ingrained that the dog doesn't need the positive reinforcement to behave as trained."

After watching the dogs navigate a seesaw and climb stairs, Ms. Baron Haet shows me the sensory garden, dominated by a raised fishpond. Using the same method of positive reinforcement that is used to train the dogs, the trainers have trained the fish to enjoy being stroked. For many blind people, this is their first opportunity to actually 'see' a fish."


@Meet Yariv Melamed

Ms. Baron Haet introduced me to Yariv Melamed, an ex-kibbutznik who began his career as an apprentice in the Center, and later received a scholarship to spend a year in Melbourne studying the clicker method of training Guide Dogs. When asked what he loves about his job, he replied, "It's wonderful to help people open a new page in their lives. I've had clients break into tears of joy after successfully navigating the obstacle course. With their new-found independence, they regain their sense of self-respect and join the world around them. After a month of working together on a daily basis, facing and overcoming fears and limitations, I develop a deep, personal relationship with my clients. Although I don't always manage to get to all of their simchos, all the trainers make annual home visits to iron out any problems, and of course, we're always there if other issues arise."

@From Astro to Zorbo

Visiting the kennels, I learn that the dogs are named according to their litter – with the names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. So Jingle, Jupiter and Janglo all have the same genetic makeup, which makes it easier to keep track of their behavior, information that is used to decide the genetic makeup of future litters. "We never give the dogs typical Hebrew names," Ms. Baron Haet explains. "After all, the chances are small that someone in a crowded mall will call out 'Hey, Jupiter.'"

Mother dogs with their newborn litters are kept in a separate area, a canine kimpeturin heim replete with soothing music, lots of stuffed pillows, toys and extra-nutritious meals. The pups remain with their mother for the first two months of their lives. Then they are sent to their adoptive families, which lavish them with love and attention and prepare them for the rigorous five-month Guide Dog training course.


Ever since Hashem commanded the First Man to "rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth" (Bereishis 1:28), man has trained animals to serve him. Yaakov Avinu kept a herd of between 600,000 to 1,200,000 dogs to tend his sheep (Bereshis Rabba, Vayetezei, parsha 73).  Dovid Hamelech raised dogs, presumably as watchdogs (Rashi, Shmuel II, 3:8). Today, dogs are trained to detect bedbugs and drugs, track down people, warn an epileptic of an impending fit, determine sounds for a deaf person and open up new horizons for the blind.

Blind Etiquette

@ Never pet or otherwise distract a Guide Dog while it is wearing the harness. It is not a pet. Distracting a Guide Dog while it is working can endanger the blind person's life.

@ If the Guide Dog is not wearing its harness, ask permission before petting it or playing with it.

@Never offer food or drink to a Guide Dog. Its owner carefully monitors the dog's food and liquid intake so that he will know when to allow the dog to relieve itself.

@Never grab or steer a person while his Guide Dog is guiding him, or attempt to hold the dog's harness.



In the Hebrew-speaking Chareidi community, Ariella Savir is a household word. A blind mother of eight – including an autistic son – she's produced dozens of popular children's tapes and CDs. She appears regularly to all-women audiences from Ofakim to Tsfas, where she weaves songs and stories as she talks about the many challenges facing her as a visually impaired woman living a normal life.

Since receiving a Guide Dog three months ago, Ariella has been appearing on stage with her dog, Zorba, who sits patiently at her side waiting for her to finish so that he can guide her backstage.

Ariella graciously offered to tell Hamodia how her Guide Dog has enriched her life.

"My husband was always there to help me and guide me. But when he suffered a minor heart attack, I suddenly realized that I must have my independence, that I can't be completely dependent on him for everything. Getting a Guide Dog was like being released from a golden prison. Yes, I had everything I wanted, and everyone was more than happy to help me, but now I have wings to fly solo. Every morning, I go for a walk and meet my friends. Sometimes, later on in the day I walk to the post office, or do some shopping. Zorbo is my key to the wonderful world around me."

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