Cover Story

Guide dogs encounter blind spot

Updated: 2011-08-05 07:25

By Zhang Yuchen and Zhu Chengpei (China Daily)

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Under different circumstances, Jenny would be treated as one of China's "talents". One of only 34 specialists in her field, she would be widely respected and given carte blanche in her work.

Guide dogs encounter blind spot

Chen Yan shares a light moment with Jenny, her guide dog, in Tiantongyuan, Beijing. [Photo/ China Daily]

But Jenny is a dog, a guide dog for a blind Beijing woman. And too many people and businesses won't let Jenny do her job.

"I have never succeeded in taking Jenny into the subway station near my home," Chen Yan said.

"I was refused six times, the reason being that they don't know how to deal with a guide dog in the subway."

She has encountered similar problems in restaurants and with cab drivers and airlines.

It's not animosity but ignorance that bars the way.

A railway station director in Beijing, who asked not to be named, said there is no direct boarding access for a blind person and guide dog. "We know it is not forbidden, but we just don't know how to do this, what rules we should abide by."

According to Beijing's blind people protection regulation, a blind person who is alone can ride the subway for free.

New in China

Guide dogs encounter blind spot

Chen Yan, who tunes pianos for a living, and Jenny, a guide dog, have been living together in Beijing since April. Jenny's all business when she is working, but is a playful friend when she's not. [Photo / China Daily]

Guide dogs assist visually impaired and blind people by avoiding obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, and negotiating traffic. Assistance dogs also can be trained to help the deaf and hard of hearing or people with disabilities such as autism or seizure disorders. All of them are considered working animals.

In most countries where guide dogs have been introduced, people who use assistance dogs are guaranteed access to all places and modes of transport available to the general public.

China's Protection Law for Disabled Persons, Item 58, says guide dogs can work in public places as long as they are abide by local or relevant regulations. It's that "abide by" part that allows for a local option. However, some cities and provinces, including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhejiang province, require that assistance dogs be allowed into any workplace, museum, cinema, hospital or other public facility.

"Guide dogs are new things in China, small in number, but using this kind of assistance dog is the right of the disabled," said Zhang Dongwang, deputy director of the rights protection office in the China Disabled Persons' Federation. "We are working on adjusting the protection law and pushing for the construction of accessible facilities."

Partners from the start

Guide dogs encounter blind spot

Trainer Wang Lin works with a golden retriever at the China Guide Dog Center in Dalian, where Jenny earned her job. The center, opened in 2006, is believed to be the first in the country approved by the China Disabled Persons' Foundation for training guide dogs. [Photo/ China Daily]

In a country with about 13 million blind citizens, Jenny, a black Labrador retriever, is only the 18th guide dog. The first was Lucky, a golden retriever who took part in the opening ceremony at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

Chen took Jenny home in April from the China Guide Dog Center in Dalian. The center, in Northeast China's Liaoning province, opened in 2006 and was the first in the country approved by the China Disabled Persons' Foundation for the work it does.

About 50 golden and Labrador retrievers are taught there by 11 trainers or bred to be qualified to assist the blind. It costs roughly 100,000 yuan ($15,500) to raise and train a guide dog, paid through the donations that support the center. Annual upkeep runs to about 10,000 yuan, which is the responsibility of the human the dog serves.

About 30 percent of the dogs will make it through the training. Some of the rest aren't patient enough, bark too much, or show aggressive tendencies, said You Fangqiu, assistant to the center's director, Dr Wang Jingyu.

Applicants for guide dogs are screened as well, for such things as the dog's purpose in the applicant's life, the applicant's physical and financial ability to care for the dog, agreement from family members and no history of allergies.

"We choose a guide dog's blind partner in accordance with the guide dog's step speed, character, size, etc. - not vice versa. They are not randomly matched," said Wang Lin, one of the trainers.

(Chen will tell you, though, that she chose her dog because someone said Jenny looked horrible. Chen, 38, doesn't really know what Jenny looks like. She has congenital cataracts and can only sense light and distinguish strong colors.)

Blind people and dogs also spend one month training together "to negotiate and to see whether they are fit for each other," Wang said.

During training, Jenny worked outside the kennel twice a day, walking with the trainer 40-60 minutes each time. She learned to respond to commands in Chinese and English, and to not respond if a stranger calls her name. At lunchtime, though, she could run on the shore or play freely with her canine pals.

And when the break was over? "Once she was in her working uniform, with the 'guide dog' sign, she totally changed into another dog - extremely loyal to her blind partner and hard to be disturbed," Wang said.

Every day now, at home in Beijing's Chaoyang district, the 3-year-old Jenny demonstrates that she is obedient, patient and smart. She lies on the floor staring at Chen, without barking or moving or sniffing a visitor.

Chen was trained to adapt to her keeper's lifestyle, trainer Wang said. Generally during the daytime, she lies quietly on her stomach. Once Chen moves, Jenny is at her side.

'She is a working dog'

"More people know about guide dogs, and the dogs enjoy comparative freedom going into public places," Wang said. "However, some places are still not accessible to the dogs.

"We can take a flight from Dalian to other cities, but it's hard for us to fly back. We have to show the guide dogs' working cards, diplomas and quarantine certificates."

Although Dalian is quite open to the guide dogs, bus drivers there won't let them board, Wang said.

Chen, who tunes pianos for a living, once tried to fly to Dalian with Jenny, but did not make it because the airport staff didn't instruct her about the forms she needed to file or how to find the right offices. In the end, Chen spent about 5,000 yuan renting a car and driver to make the trip.

For a flight last week, Chen had filed the paperwork three days in advance. She arrived at Beijing's airport at 5:45 am, but she and Jenny were bumped from their overbooked morning flight. As they prepared to board a plane in the afternoon, the crew commander barred them at the door. He said he hadn't been informed that a woman and her guide dog were to be passengers. Chen, in tears, and Jenny were left on the tarmac.

Finally, at 5:15 pm, they were able to fly. Chen complained to China Southern Airlines about her treatment, and six days later received 10,000 yuan ($1,550) in compensation.

Often, Chen pays twice the customary fare for a cab ride because only black taxis will accept her and Jenny. Regular cab drivers, she said, have told her that "dogs are not allowed to get in the car. But Jenny is not just a dog. She is a working dog."

She has had similar problems at some restaurants and supermarkets. "They are concerned that Jenny will pollute the food or even steal the food to eat," Chen said. "The thought is ridiculous. Working dogs are not normal dogs."

She has got some assistance from a group of middle school students. She and Jenny had been shooed away from the McDonald's near her home four times. On their fifth attempt, the children argued with the restaurant staff and Chen and her guide dog were allowed inside.

"The Japanese movie in 2004, Quill, showed me that society respects a blind person with a guide dog," Chen said.

A late start

Although pictures of dogs helping blind people were found in the ruins of Pompeii, the first modern school for training assistance dogs wasn't established until after World War I, in Germany.

The center in Dalian opened in 2006. Now a training center for working dogs is being operated by the Nanjing Police Dog Institute, Ministry of Public Security. Nanjing dogs are sent to Shanghai; Dalian guide dogs are farther afield, in places including Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia.

China is not yet set up to confer certificates to dog trainers or a school to train them.

"We have to establish the career by regulating the usage of guide dogs step by step," said Li Weihong, deputy chairman of the China Association of the Blind.

Counting on it

Chen knows that her dog is well trained. That's part of what frustrates her when others won't let Jenny do her job. But Jenny is more than a working partner now, after only a few months.

"She is my friend as well as my eyes. Whenever I go outside with her, I am rid of the fear that clings to me. I experience the sense of independence and privacy other aid people never gave me."

Chen once heard a story about counting stars in the night sky: A dream will come true if a person keeps counting the stars until reaching 10,000. "I can't see the stars in the night sky but I can fold paper stars with colorful paper strips. My first dream of becoming a piano tuner has been fulfilled.

"I am counting on it, and my next dream is one day my Jenny can take me freely walking in the city."


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