Any dog owner will tell you, often in tedious detail, how wonderful their dogs are and about the joy and companionship they bring. But just imagine, if you can, how truly life-changing having a guide dog can be.
For someone suffering from blindness or severely impaired vision, a guide dog is not simply a companion, but a working tool that liberates them from the confines of home or relying on family or friends to help them negotiate the bustling streets of modern Israel. Often it can be the difference between being isolated by disability and being able to socialise, work and participate fully in society.
Until I became involved with the Israel Guide Dog Centre I couldn’t have conceived quite how complex is the process by which dogs are bred, trained and partnered with those who will eventually benefit from them.
The amount of thought, planning, expertise and compassion that goes into this process is breath-taking and inspiring in equal measure.
Getting a guide dog for the first time, often while still coming to terms with one’s loss of sight, requires a tremendous leap of faith – trusting another sentient being with one’s safety and working in partnership with them.
The Centre prepares those being matched with a guide dog with counselling and psychological support and also ensures that the dogs have the training, temperament and stamina to be an utterly reliable, constant aid and companion.
The Israel Guide Dog centre is part of the International Federation of Guide Dog Schools for the Blind, which includes UK Guide Dogs among its 80 members.
These links provide another opportunity to show how Israeli expertise and collaboration with international partners improves the situation of millions of people around the world.
It’s an exciting time to be involved with the Israel Guide Dog Centre as it marks its 25th anniversary. A much needed expansion plan will help to provide even more blind and partially sighted Israelis with a guide dog. But to realise this dream we need your help.
So please read on, and be inspired by the stories of individuals who have had their lives changed by a guide dog.
GADI & BUTCH
Gadi Yarkoni was 19 when he lost his sight. He was a soldier at the time, in active service during the Second Lebanon War and got shot in the skull. The bullet severed his optic nerve and the injury blinded him for life.
Plunged into a world of darkness before reaching the age of 20 is unimaginable and for many would mark the end of all possibilities. Fortunately Gadi isn’t one of them and this was never more apparent to his family and countrymen than when he crossed the finish line at the Rio Paralympics in August taking 9th place.
But Gadi has crossed the line in many races and this was second time participating in the Games as he ran tethered to his trainer in the marathon in London in 2012. Impressively now aged 41, the IDF veteran shows no sign of taking off his running shoes.
But behind every successful story of miraculous recovery there is a significant other providing motivation. For Gadi it is a golden Labrador called Butch. Together they make a formidable team and Gadi who once stood to attention in the army is now giving the orders to his four-legged companion who responds to his every command.
Like many injured young veterans this was another who did not want to become dependent on others for help or live a life of isolation and in 1996 he requested help from the Israel Dogs for The Blind Centre. That was when they teamed him with a black labrador called Timmy,one of the first 500 dogs to be trained at the Centre which opened in 1991.
Timmy gave Gadi the freedom he craved to be independent in his daily life and the dog knew to remain calm during warning sirens, and how to navigate Israel’s security and traffic environment. He was even bred for the size and temperament Gadi needed in a guide dog. And now it’s Butch who is by Gadi’s side when he heads out for an early morning run, goes off to work as physical therapist or just for a stroll in the park.
This kind of liberated living was not possible in Israel before the Guide Dog Centre opened and a blind person had to travel to the US to obtain an English-trained guide dog that was unprepared to adapt to Israel’s landscape. A moment with Gadi Yarkoni and Butch will show you why your support means everything.
ACHIYA KLEIN AND KNIGHT
“I knew immediately my old life was over and that I had to get on with the task of living.”
Achiya Klein, a strapping 22-year-old officer in an elite commando unit, led his men into a terrorist tunnel outside of Gaza in November 2013. Their task was to destroy the tunnel. Unfortunately they triggered a booby-trap setting off a massive explosion that killed four terrorists and severely wounded Achiya. Taking the brunt of the blast, Achiya suffered extensive injuries, especially the devastating loss of his eyesight.
“I woke up from the coma and could not see. The doctors hoped to give back my vision, but after many surgeries, they failed,” says Achiya. “My left eye sees large blobs of color, and my right eye is gone.” Born and raised in an orthodox family, Achiya is one of six children who grew up in a religious kibbutz near Jerusalem.
After being discharged from the hospital, Achiya realized he had to set new goals. “I knew immediately my old life was over and that I had to get on with the task of living.” he says poignantly. “Because I am athletic, I got easily frustrated by how slowly I moved using a cane. “I knew I needed a dog.”
In April 2015, Achiya was partnered with Night, a very large but sweet Black Labrador. “Our first walk together was amazing. It was like gliding on air.” The two became fast friends and the relationship is growing stronger each day.
Achiya plans to go back to school for International Relations and has set a goal to compete in the Triathlon at the Para-Olympic games. “I train twice a day to prepare,” he reports. “There is a 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run. Training helps me stay focused on the future, instead of sitting alone thinking about the past.” During the final week of class, Achiya walked unassisted through the busy streets of Rehovot. He moved so quickly that it was hard for the instructor (following at a distance) to keep up. “With Night, I feel ready for anything.”
ORIT & JUNE
“I wanted to become independent with my new guide dog at my side.”
For a new mother there is no greater joy than pushing her baby in a pram. It is how she imagined it would be when she was a little girl with a doll in a pushchair and Orit Ray felt the same way, even though she cannot see.
Partially sighted due to premature retinopathy, Orit, 24, can register some shadows and discern between light and dark, but even with her restricted vision she wanted the mother/baby experience and the Israel Guide Dog Centre have made that possible.
Remarkably industrious Rafi Taglicht, a senior instructor at the IGDCB, researched and designed an accessible baby pram for Orit to take her daughter on outings. Attached via a belt to Orit’s lower back, the design enables her to leave her hands free to hold the harness of her guide dog.
Orit who lives in Be’ersheva with her young and active family wanted a guide when she was 12 and made the initial call to the centre. But having a dog requires a level of maturity Orit had yet to reach and so she had to wait, while she used a white cane for her mobility.
“At that time I was completely dependent on my family to do everything and get me to places,” says Orit . “But when the Center told me I was ready for a dog I could hardly wait to get there.” Orit had many personal goals she hoped to achieve which she arrived for the three week course at the Center. “I had never been away from home or my family and I wanted to become independent via my new guide dog. I felt so motivated and excited to increase my self-confidence and be able to choose for myself how and where and when I went out.” And then Orit met Julie. The female yellow Labrador trained by the Center was a willing partner and Orit had to learn to trust her – something that doesn’t always come easily. “But we made a good and strong connection,” says Orit who proved to be an excellent student according to the instructors who were impressed by how serious she was about making the relationship work.
Now studying Computer Program Engineering at a local college and an active member of a “Goal Ball’ team, Orit continues to push herself and Julie is a crucial part of that. But the moment that has meant the most was when she stepped out in the sunshine with Julie by her side to push her daughter along the street in a pram. A moment the Israel Guide Dog Centre made possible.
ELI & GLEN
“We’re still in the first stages of getting acquainted, but I can see he behaves well and obeys my commands.”
Eli Yablonek’s partner is called Glen and he is a yellow labrador. The retired businessman who lives in Afula also has a wife, two children and a granddaughter, but Glen often takes precedence. Of the many Hebrew words Eli has taught his guide dog, retreat is not among them; possibly because it is not part of his own vocabulary as he is one of Israel’s military heroes and recipient of the Ot Mofet medal for bravery in the field. In a prolonged battle with 30 Egyptian tanks during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Eli singlehandedly knocked out four enemy tanks. Hit by shrapnel, bleeding from head to foot, his unit nearly wiped out and facing overwhelming odds, Eli wouldn’t abandon his post in the tank.
When the enemy pulverised his tail and tore his body to shreds, he just continued to fight. Pulling pieces of shrapnel from his body, Eli faced down a rocket lobbed directly at him by the other side – but refused to budge from his position. When it was all over, he had lost his arm, his face was riddled with shrapnel, and his eyes were destroyed. But his heroic action against crushing forces halted the enemy advance and carried the day. Through it all, Eli remembers saying one thing to himself: “We have to finish this.”
Forty years on and Eli has never stopped fighting. A man of few words, with a no nonsense attitude, he has trained himself to be an excellent hiker, tandem bike rider, swimmer and skier. For Eli there are no limits. When asked why he wanted a guide dog, he replied, “INDEPENDENCE!”
During initial training Eli and Glen had already developed their own language of touch and communication. When they interact, they’re like old friends sharing a joke. “Glen is smart,” Eli remarks proudly. “We’re still in the first stages of getting acquainted, but I can see he behaves well and obeys my commands.”
After his last guide dog died, Eli found it difficult to rely on others to take him places, so he turned to the Israel Guide Dog Centre. “Not only can I speak to Glen in Hebrew, but the Centre is close to my home and the waiting time is so much shorter than in the US.”
In the US, Eli had to wait for one-to-one training with an instructor because many clients were being trained simultaneously. At the Centre, the ratio of instructor to clients is lower and the wait significantly shorter. In his terse manner, Eli sums it up: “I like the fact that my time isn’t being wasted.” But for Eli the battle of life never ends. After mastering hiking, he and Glen went on a skiing trip to Europe. “But, of course, Glen and I have to attend to matters at home. There are a lot of people here who need our help.”
SALEEM & WINSTON
“When you change a life, you change the world.”
“I want to be an Ambassador of Peace,” said a confident Saleem Sharif after receiving his guide dog, Winston. “My dream is to go to New York with Winston and speak to people about Muslims and Jews living together without hate.”
One of five children living in Nazareth with his family Saleem has been visually impaired since birth and applied for a dog when he was 15, but was deemed too young for the responsibility. But when he reapplied four years later he was accepted.
“I had some residual vision, but what little I had went away quickly in the last year or so, and I knew I needed a dog to help,” said Saleem.
“When I was very young, my mother was walking down the street wearing a hijab, and a man approached us, cursing and spitting on my mother. I could not understand why he hated us. I thought most Jews felt this way, but my experience at the Israel Guide Dog Center has changed me. I lived with four other students, talked with all of the staff, and felt comfortable and respected. Today I call all of them my friends and plan to stay in touch.”
Although not required to do so, Saleem joined the National Service, where he works as a telephone operator at a health clinic, answering phones and making appointments. “I love Israel and want to be a part of making it better.”
When asked how Winston was going to change his life, Saleem replied, “Up until now, I have depended on my friends and family to take me places and bring me things. I felt like a burden no matter how much they insisted otherwise. Now that I have Winston, I think they will ask me to get things for them. Instead of using others, my friends can use me!”
Articulate and mature with a new lease of life provided by Winston,Saleem is keen to pass on a message to those who donate to the charity. “When you change a life, you change the world. Thank you for changing my life and my world.”
You can also read the Israel Guide Dog Centre supplement on the Jewish News website: