Golden Guide Lucky a first in China – Updated

I originally posted the following story on January 17, 2008.
0013729e4abe08d3ebd20e.jpgIt is amazing that some things that we so easily take for granted are not available to many other nations in the world. It has taken over 20 years for China to have Guide Dogs despite there being over 12 million people there suffering from some type of visual impairment.

Sadly, the country does not allow open access for larger dogs such as Goldens so Ping Yali, shown here, cannot take full advantage of Lucky’s abilities.

For example, he cannot enter public places. And the city of Beijing does not allow him taken outside unless he is in the company of an able-bodied (rather than blind) person.

Lucky guides Ping across roads, not by recognizing the color of traffic lights, but by watching traffic flows. Lucky recognized the word “Gongyuan”, which means park, after being shown it only a couple of times.

Golden retrievers are considered one of the best breeds for guide dogs because of their intelligence and friendly disposition. The Dalian Medical University Center, where Lucky was trained, was established two years ago. It is now training some 30 canines for visually impaired athletes to raise awareness about facilities for the blind. It takes eight months and costs about 100,000 yuan ($13,500) to train a guide dog.

Ping’s first exposure to guide dogs was at the New York Paralympics, where many blind athletes from European countries and the United States had their own seeing dogs.

UPDATE
On September the 20th, the temporary permission that allowed guide dogs in public places came to an end. The permission, that dated from June 20th was issued due to the Paralympics. Now, again, guide dogs are regarded as ordinary pets and are not allowed on public transportation.

Since there is no accredited organization in China for guide dogs, Ping cannot register him as such. Golden Lucky is taller than Beijing’s current pet standards of 35 cm, and registering him is complicated as ownership of large dogs is restricted. Only seven disabled people in China have seeing eye dogs.

After Paralympics, what´s next for China´s guide dogs?
Xinhua Special Report:  Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, September 17, 2008

BEIJING, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) — “Lucky; Hou Bin! Lucky; Hou Bin!” yells Ping Yali, a partially blind Chinese woman. “Lucky” is her 30-month-old guide dog. She holds on to his harness with her left hand. In her right, Ping proudly lifts up the Paralympic torch.

Ping cannot see the bright lights beating down on her; she can’t even see the torch she is holding, but she can hear thousands of cheering fans. Their screams get louder as she and Lucky make their way toward Hou Bin, the last torch bearer in the Paralympic’s opening ceremony.

This time the hand-off from one disabled athlete to another is seamless. That was not the case just one month ago. Ping did not bring Lucky with her to the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics. As she made her way through Tian’anmen Square, the torchbearers in front of and behind her did not know she was blind. A passer-by had to tell her when to grab the flame. Ping then ran in zig-zags to hand it to the next person.

“If Lucky were with me, it would never have happened,” said Ping. “He would definitely have led me to the destination.”

Lucky is one of only seven seeing-eye dogs in China. Ping was chosen as one of the first recipients of a guide because she won the country’s first gold medal in the long jump at the 1984 New York Paralympics.

During their first walk together, Lucky helped guide Ping down stairs, which is one of the most challenging tasks for a blind person.  “At that moment, I burst into tears,” she said. “Lucky reduces the risk of injuring myself when I go out.”

The golden retriever graduated from China’s only guide dog training center at Dalian Medical Science University in the northeastern Liaoning Province.  Ping received Lucky last December and will live with him for the next ten years.  The pair go out for morning exercise, shopping, wandering in the park and also to various Paralympic venues.  “I was quite impressed when people struggle to stroke and soothe Lucky when I was with him outside. They truly liked him,” she said.

But Lucky can’t go everywhere. Taxi drivers refuse to give Pinga ride if she has her dog. She is also turned away on public transportation like buses and the subway.  In China, guide dogs were allowed in public places from July 20 to Sept. 20 thanks to a temporary certificate issued by the authority for the Olympics. Now that the Games are over, Ping worries about getting around with her guide dog.

“It is heart-wrenching thinking of Lucky’s fate after the deadline,” she said.

Ping doesn’t want him trapped inside her house all day so she tried to register Lucky with the Office for Dog-raising in Beijing. Her request was denied because she didn’t have a certificate proving Lucky was a guide dog.  So far, there are no accredited organizations for guide dogs in China. Lucky is also bigger than Beijing’s current pet standards of35 cm high. He stands at 80 cm.

An amendment to the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons in April, granted the blind the right to take guide dogs to public places, provided they obeyed the ‘relevant regulations’.

Just what ‘relevant regulations’ mean is unclear to Wang Jingyu, the director of China’s Guide Dog Training Center.  “The article is too vague. Detailed rules are need to help its implementation,” said Wang.  He suggested the central government allow guide dogs in all public places and give more financial support to train more dogs.

The China Disabled Persons Federation estimates there are 12 million people with visual impairments in the country. Yet there are only 20 guide dogs currently receiving training in Dalian.  “Not every blind person needs a guide dog, but if he needs it,I hope I can give him the choice,” said Wang.

The cost to train a guide dog is more than 100,000 yuan (14,663U.S. dollars). Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Sherpherds are the breeds most likely to be chosen and only 30 percent of those trained end up working with blind owners.  “Guide dogs should not be afraid of sounds, lights, fires and cars,” said Wang. “They should be calm and not invasive.”

China’s Guide Dog Training Center was established in May 2006.  The facility operates on a small government grant along with company and private donations. It employs 17 people, most of whom are young female university graduates. Wang said the future of the center is uncertain.

It’s not news Ping wants to hear.  For a divorced mother whose son has gone to university, Lucky helps not only with day-to-day tasks but also with her loneliness.  “Guide dogs are eyes for the blind. They can help us go out of rooms and integrate into the society. I hope more people could enjoy the benefits brought by the guide dogs,” said Ping.

An American donor gave Lucky his name. Ping says he’s already lived up to it.

Only six other blind people in China are as lucky as Ping to receive a guide dog, and she hopes her appearance with Lucky in the Paralympics will change those statistics.  “The Chinese people now know guide dogs are not pets. They are working dogs just as police dogs are,” she said. “Guide dogs are intelligent and friendly. They won’t cause any safety issues.”

As the spirit of inclusion lingers in China after the Paralympics, Ping hopes society will find a place for not only the blind but also their new four-legged companions.

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