More than eyes to the blind

SEOUL - For Yoon Seo-hyang, her guide dog Lucy is more than a four-legged animal that gives her sight. For the past four years, the 6-year-old golden retriever has been Yoon's best friend, steering her way to school, keeping her safe outside and helping her embrace freedom, independence and a connection with the outside world that she never had before.

"I was a loner," said the 22-year-old education major at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. "Lucy changed my life completely. She helped me make friends and become more engaged with others," she said patting Lucy.

Yoon lost her sight shortly after birth. Before she got Lucy, she used to remain silent to a degree that nobody around her noticed her existence.

"Now I want to see more of the world and experience different cultures out there," she said, adding that she wanted to visit Canada some day.

The straight-A student aspires to become a middle school English teacher. "I want to become a teacher who helps students find their dreams. It won't be easy, but with Lucy, I think I can do it."

Lucy is one of 60 guide dogs currently serving the blind in Korea. Their partnership was arranged in 2010 by Samsung Guide Dog School for the Blind, a local training institute for working dogs wholly funded by Samsung Fire & Marine, an insurance affiliate of Samsung Group. The school is located near Everland, Samsung's amusement park in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. It is the only training centre for guide dogs officially registered to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

For last 20 years, the Samsung school trained about 160 working dogs to assist visually impaired people and give them independence. It currently has about 14 dogs in training and 41 puppies raised at volunteering homes in Seoul and its vicinity.

Only about 30 per cent of puppies bred by the school become professional guide dogs because the school maintains strict standards for the sake of safety, according to trainers.

Candidate puppies come from mothers carefully chosen for having the right temper, character and health. Seven weeks after birth they are sent to volunteer homes that socialise and teach them basic obedience skills.

After spending a year at the puppy walkers' homes, they are put through an intensive training course at the school for another year to complete their obedience skills, reinforce their ability to react well to new objects and recover from stress. Candidate dogs are given a series of aptitude tests, which trainers say are equivalent to the university entrance exam for humans.

If they pass the test, guide dogs are then monitored to find the right owner for them.

A trained guide dog is valued at over 100 million won (S$115,000). The Samsung school covers every expense, except for food, to keep dogs healthy even after they graduate from the school.

In the future, the blind could walk wearing GPS helmets and drive cars that have automated parking systems. However, such technological devices would not be able to replace guide dogs, trainers said.

"I think the dogs are doing extraordinary jobs and are even smarter than humans in some ways," said Hong A-reum, a 31-year-old trainer.

They are trained to warn the blind to avoid obstacles at shoulder level. One guide dog once saved his owner from falling down an empty elevator shaft as he noticed something different, the trainer said.

Guide dogs bridge blind people to the outer world, Hong said.

"People mostly talk about the functional role of guide dogs, but they, in fact, help the blind to build relationships with others," She said.

"If a blind person walks on streets with a cane, people would not pay attention to him or her. But if that person walks with a dog, more people become interested in the pair and come to talk with them."

Even the highly trained dogs have limits.

"Guide dogs are not GPS navigation devices," Hong said. "They cannot go anywhere their owners desire. They have to make themselves familiar with the course. It requires constant training," she added.

The guide dog programme has also helped improve public awareness of animal rights and welfare.

"The school has endeavoured to increase public awareness on guide dogs and their users for the last 20 years. Now is the time to make a concerted effort to build better (social) system for the convenience of the working dogs and the blind," said Ha Woo-jong, PR manager for Samsung Guide Dog School.

Ha and his colleagues have been working on promoting the etiquette required of people who encounter a cute, floppy-eared dog wearing a harness.

"A guide dog is a highly trained dog that helps the blind to move around safely. When a dog is in a harness, they are on duty or working, and people should not touch, talk to, feed or even take picture of the dog or his or her owner," Ha said.

People should not try to grab or touch the handler of guide dogs or to grab the dog's harness because that would confuse the team, he added.

The school collaborates with the government to protect the basic rights of guide dog users and trainers. With the school's suggestion, the Health Ministry last year revised the law to ban public facilities from denying access to guide dogs, owners and trainers. Violators could face a 3 million won fine.

Despite the law, guide dog teams often encounter problems, particularly at grocery stores, restaurants or even camping grounds.

"We were rejected by a camping ground in Han River Park because the operator rejected the dog. But it is a part of training to bring the dog to all kinds of public areas to let them get used to all those distractions and the noises people make," puppy walker Ko Se-eun said.

People's false notions about guide dogs often frustrate handlers, trainers and volunteers.

"I hate to hear people saying they feel pity for guide dogs and that they may die soon because they suffer from stress, which is not true," Hong said.

Yoon agreed. "I believe that dogs are as happy as their handlers. I wish people to see us as wonderful partners, not just as a dog and a blind person."