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Making a Difference: Directing and Protecting on Four Legs

Guide dogs are the eyes for those who cannot see.

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Charlene Ota was hit by a car several years ago before she and her Labrador, Irish, became a guide dog team. They now go everywhere together and rely on each other to make safe and enjoyable outings.

Photo: Olivier Koning

For most people, crossing a busy downtown intersection or navigating a crowded sidewalk requires just a little concentration and looking both ways. But for Hawaii’s blind, like Charlene Ota, it takes a leap of faith—often faith in man’s best friend. “I feel more at ease,” says Ota of walking with her guide dog, Irish. “It’s a team effort; I decide to do what I feel I can handle best and he watches and uses external cues to guide me.”

Ota has had her black Labrador for a little over a year. Dogs like Irish, with years of specialized training, cost approximately $37,000. But thanks to the nonprofit Eye of the Pacific, Guide Dogs & Mobility Services, Ota got Irish for free.

Eye of the Pacific was established in 1955 to provide guide dogs to the blind in Hawaii at no cost, through funding from Aloha United Way and several private foundations. The nonprofit also sidesteps the state’s animal quarantine regulations by working with dogs from Australia and New Zealand. Like Hawaii, these countries are also rabies free, so the dogs enter the Islands under a quarantine exclusion process. “While residents were able to obtain their guide dogs from the Mainland training centers, the 120-day quarantine period jeopardized the work skills of the dog,” says Jeanne Torres, manager of Eye of the Pacific.  In 1997, animal quarantines were relaxed for guide dogs but it’s still easier for the non-profit to partner with Australia and New Zealand organizations.

Torres and her staff of five volunteers work with guide training centers that breed and train Labrador Retrievers, or Lab mixes. “Guide dogs are scientifically bred and, upon weaning, they are placed with volunteer puppy raisers, who spend time to socialize the dogs, exposing them to places and sounds that they may come in contact with during their careers,” says Torres.

After the puppies are around one year old they are returned to the centers, where they are rigorously evaluated—on intelligence, willingness to please and social behavior—to see if they would make suitable guide dogs. Those that pass undergo a five-to-seven-month training program. The dog is then placed with an appropriate Eye of the Pacific candidate.

Ota first came into contact with the Oahu nonprofit in 2005. She’s had guide dogs before, but, due to health and other issues, was then just using a cane. “I spent some time talking with trainer John Gosling, and he gave me a new perspective.” A year later, Ota left for Australia, where she spent three weeks working with Irish and his trainer. The relationship between a guide dog and the person it helps is complex; the human needs training, too, and afterwards is referred to as the dog’s handler.

“After three weeks … the handler, trainer and guide dog come back here and develop routes and exercise skills for [the dog’s] new environment,” says Torres. The trainer creates routes for the guide-dog team based on the handler’s schedule and environment and also conducts workshops for the handler’s family and friends to acclimate them to the dog, and the dog to its new surroundings. 

Over the past 54 years, Eye of the Pacific has helped place 60 dogs with blind residents, five in the last year alone. The majority of the handlers live on Oahu. Torres says most of Hawaii’s blind live on Oahu because it affords a more independent lifestyle. To apply for a dog, a candidate must be blind and at least 18 years old.

Torres notes that the dogs transition easily into their new environments and create strong bonds with their handlers. “Labs are generally very sociable creatures and the general public is more attracted to and accepting of them,” she says. “They mature early, have a longer period of service, a high level of intelligence and are willing to please.”

For Irish , that means commuting on the bus from St. Louis Heights, where Ota lives with her husband and two cats, to her part-time job at the Hawaii Center for Independent Living. “We pass the Institute for Human Services each morning and the women outside there love him,” says Ota. But Irish’s favorite outings are to the Kaimuki Longs Drugs or Times Supermarket. “I appreciate Irish,” she says. “He’s a great friend.”

How to Help:

To donate to Eye of the Pacific, visit www.eyeofthepacific.org.      

 


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,February

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