Paws to the rescue

By Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

Updated: 28 September, 2020 10:38 IST

September is International Guide Dog Month but is India ready for canines who aid the visually challenged? We speak to experts to find out

In 1890, Jean Bungartz, a German animal painter, founded the Deutschen Verein für Sanitätshunde (German Association for Ambulance Dogs). Its purpose was to train canines to find wounded soldiers, and served extensively during the First World War. Then, in 1916, via the organisation, the first guide dog was issued to Paul Feyen, a blind veteran. Since then, guide dogs, who are specifically trained to help the visually challenged navigate obstacles, have helped thousands across the globe. And September has been declared International Guide Dog Day in their honour.

In India, home to 40 million people who are blind or visually impaired, guide dogs are anything but everyday reality. Canine behaviourist and trainer Shirin Merchant who has founded the city-based organisation Canines Can Care says that although they can provide guide dog training, they have refrained from doing so because of two reasons: the lack of public awareness and infrastructure. "About six visually-challenged people reach out to us every year. They explain that they want to lead a life outdoors, which involves a lot of dangerous elements. People can tease them or the dogs. Plus, there's traffic from six directions. And so, we're putting both lives at risk," she reasons. Instead, Merchant suggests that people, who are keen on getting guide dogs, can do so in a controlled setting such as a home, corporate office or an IT Park.

Shirin Merchant, Unnati Hunjan and Saadiqur Rahman

Unnati Hunjan, a Bengaluru-based psychologist, animal-assisted therapist and former professor at Christ University who helms Therapeutic Paws (TP), concurs with Merchant's view that the country has a long way to go in fostering a safe environment for both handlers as well as the canines. She recalls her time at Miami University where there were service dogs and the people who surrounded them were cognisant of the fact that they need to give them space to do their job. "Here, it won't work even if the canine is wearing a harness that says, 'I'm a guide dog at work'," she reckons, adding, "With guide dogs, because the handler is visually impaired, focus is critical; if someone comes to pet them, for instance, and the handler takes their name, their attention should turn immediately to them."

Currently offering animal assisted therapy (AAT) services, Hunjan plans to delve into the domain of guide dogs soon, and vouches for controlled settings being a criteria, too. "It's not that only puppies can be trained to grow up to be guide dogs. We can work with older dogs as well. We can help handlers get the dog itself or help in evaluation. Temperament testing is very important for guide dogs. The breeding matters, not the breed. I've seen Labradors and retrievers [commonly believed to be suitable guide dogs] also fail the test," she shares."

To build awareness, TP has been conducting webinars for organisations and universities on AAT. Closer home, a new service for guide dogs is also mushrooming. It's called Gold & Labs and is run by Thane-based Saadiqur Rahman, a former sales professional, who is passionate about the cause. The venture that launched this year facilitates the process of procuring the guide dog from expert trainers to handlers — the duration of this is a minimum of one year, given that background checks and training take time. "The cost is approximately R5 lakh. But many people cannot afford that so we also help them in fundraising or approach corporates to support them as part of CSR," he shares.

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First Published: 28 September, 2020 10:01 IST

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