Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Meet “Daria". Isn’t she a sweetie?
Daria is just eleven weeks old, but already she’s beginning her life’s work, training to become an official Guide Dog, a loving shadow for an Israeli who happens to be blind.
What’s even more interesting is that Daria is being trained in the US by some good friends of mine, Jeff and Ellen Lambert, from Long Island.
You got it: the Lamberts are training a puppy – training her to Hebrew commands, right there in New York. Several months from now, when Daria is fully socialized, she’ll make aliyah, come to Israel where she will then receive further training to become a fully-fledged Guide Dog. After that, she’ll be placed with an Israeli who needs her to help him live a much-enriched life, with much more freedom of movement, than he or she would otherwise have.
I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s so fascinating I just can’t help mentioning it again. Before Noach Braun, a former parachutist with the IDF, established the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in 1991, any blind Israeli who wanted a guide dog had to first pass an English test before they could receive one.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? A blind Israeli having to speak English in order to get a guide dog!
But as it was before Noach Braun, all Guide Dogs were trained in the US. So the blind person had to travel to the US to be trained in how to work with and care for his dog. And of course in the US, all the training was offered in English only, so it was available only to Israelis who could communicate in English.
I won’t repeat the whole story about how Noach – that's Noach, one of Israel’s greatest heroes, pictured with "Billie" -- managed to get the Guide Dog Center (IGDCB) started, but it’s an amazing tale. (If you’re interested, email me, and I’ll send you the link to articles I’ve already published about that.)
Today the IGDCB is a thriving institution, located on a lovely campus near Tel Aviv, where not only are puppies specifically bred, born and trained, but where now, blind Israelis come to live for several weeks, and receive their guide dog training right here.
That story became even more amazing several years ago when Jeff and Ellen were the first to bridge the gap, so to speak. The Lamberts had long been involved in raising special puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a similar non-profit for the blind in Yorktown, NY. The idea of raising a puppy for the Israeli center came about when one of the puppies the Lamberts had raised -- “Ramsey” – was eventually placed with a blind pianist in Israel. When the Lamberts visited Israel, they met the pianist and renewed acquaintance with Ramsey, who remembered his foster parents very well.
"When we next visited Israel, Ramsey and his owner took me on a long tour of Jerusalem,” Jeff recalls. “With Ramsey in the lead, we walked to all the places the pianist went, doing what he did. Along the way, I pointed out things he and Ramsey passed by every day, but the pianist had never seen – like the big statute of a horse on King George Street. He hadn't known that was there. We walked over to it, and he put his hands on the horse, and saw it for the first time. That day was unforgettable."
So inspired were the Lamberts, that they were determined to help the Israeli Guide Dogs Center, too. So a suitable puppy was found at the Yorktown Center – “Gibor”. Here they are with Gibor.
The Lamberts took Gibor in and raised him. Gibor went everywhere with Jeff. “Sometimes when Gibor and I were out and about, some wise guy would ask, 'So does this dog speak Hebrew?'” Jeff recalls. “I'd say, 'No, but he understands Hebrew.' So I'd show them. 'Sit!' I'd say, and Gibor ignored me. Then I said 'Shev', and he sat. 'Come' I'd say, and Gibor paid no attention, but when I said 'Bo!' he came. That blows people away."
"We were regular riders on the Long Island Railroad. On Shabbat, I'd take him to synagogue – every time, when we came to the 'Alleinu', at the end of the service where we all stand up, Gibor would stand up too, all by himself. People couldn't believe it – there's this davening dog!"
Gibor made aliyah about a year ago – that’s the family, seeing him off. Then the Lamberts raised “Dvash” – “Honey” – also for the Israel Center. Dvash made aliyah, too, and now the newest baby in the Lambert household is Daria, who in turn will also make the trip to Israel, where she will be paired with one of Israel’s estimated 23,000 blind people.
The unfortunate truth is, Israel has more blind people, per capita, than most other countries. Because of the prevalence of terror attacks and of damaged eyes among our soldiers, we have more than our share of people who suffer from blindness and who desperately need a guide dog to accompany them through life.
The Lamberts aren’t the only “foreign” families to be raising guide dogs for the Israel Center. Michael and Gillian Stoller, in London, did the same thing. They raised “Minty” for the Israel Center. Here's Minty as a baby herself.
What does it mean, that the Lamberts and Stoller's “raised” a puppy for the Center? For both Centers, Israel and Yorktown, the specially bred puppies -- Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or half-Lab, half-Golden mixes – are born right there, at the centers. They remain there for their first eight weeks of life, and are then placed with foster human families, who raise the dogs through their first year, socializing them, taking them everywhere, accustoming them to every kind of environment, event and activity. Only then do the puppies go on for their real training as Guide Dogs, after which they’re placed with their blind companions.
It costs several thousand dollars to fully train a "team" of a Guide Dog and a person who is blind. If anyone out there would like to help, here’s how:
Tax deductable contributions may be sent to:
Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind (USA Office)
732 S. Settlers Circle
Warrington, PA 18976
For more information in Israel:
Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind