Nine potential guide dogs have been born in Hong Kong over the past year – a first for our city. But when it comes to training them, Olivia Lai finds that it can be a nightmare for the instructors and a potential disaster for the blind.
It’s hard to walk the streets of Hong Kong without coming across someone cradling a terrier or exercising their golden retriever. Guide dogs, however, are a much rarer sight, despite more than 170,000 visually impaired people living in the city. There has to be a reason for this, since it’s almost a universal fact that a blind person’s life can be improved with the help of a trained canine. The answer is simple. There’s a glaring lack of legal protection in Hong Kong which makes breeding and training a guide dog a headache. And that, in turn, deters those in need of a helping paw. It’s been a problem for years – but, finally, one organisation is fighting for a change in legislation so that soon, we may see many more guide dogs on our streets.
Hong Kong has had guide dog training programmes underway for more than 40 years. But, due to rules that prevent animals from visiting a range of premises, they’ve rarely taken off. Indeed, the territory’s first two guide dogs arrived from overseas almost half a century ago but, sadly, they died early on, one from sickness and the other in a traffic accident. And, up until recent years, when a few key people started putting a huge amount of effort in, plans for developing any programme here have always stalled.
So, the facts. It’s been reported that, in December 2014, there were 174,800 visually impaired people in Hong Kong, which makes up about 2.4 percent of the population. Estimated demand for a guide dog here is about 0.01 percent – 1,700 people – of all those who are visually impaired. That compares to the much higher international figure of one percent. But there are only about 40 guide dogs in active service in Hong Kong now. Many more are needed.
Good news – four locally bred guide dogs-in-training were born last year. This is a first for our city. Never before have any actually been born and raised here. Five more puppies were born this March, so now we have nine that can be trained. And it’s all down to people like Raymond Cheung. It wasn’t until 2012 that the city saw its first guide dog training centre open its doors. Founded by Cheung, Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services took 25 years to turn into a reality. But it has since been ramping up its training and breeding programmes, despite problems with the lack of legal protection for trainers on certain premises in the city. “I was a dog trainer and groomer originally,” says Cheung. “And I wanted to give back to the community in the best way I could. So, when I saw that Hong Kong had no guide dogs and there was no-one dedicated enough to put the energy and resources into building a service, I stepped up.”
Four years on and HKSEDS has now trained more than 20 guide dogs, which mostly come from abroad, apart from our new homegrown additions. Cheung hopes to continually localise the programme and reduce the need for any dogs to be imported at all. “By breeding and training locally,” says Cheung, “it reduces the number of dogs which need to be delivered on planes. That comes with its own risks, so local breeding means there’s less reliance on overseas agencies. More importantly, we can produce a bigger batch of puppies who can become guide dogs.” Locally bred dogs are more familiar with Hong Kong’s landscape, adds Cheung. He says they are better at navigating a blind person around the city, including when it comes to dealing with MTR barriers and escalators.
HKSEDS cadet trainer Edith Lee says the imported dogs become nervous around city landmarks like the wet markets. “It’s as if I was feeding them to the dinosaurs,” she says of one experience in a market. “Their feet were planted to the ground. There was even one dog that walked into a glass door!” On top of the standard training period, extra time is required for dogs to become used to our concrete jungle. Raising local dogs makes for less problems later, says Lee, and makes training a more efficient process from day one.
David Wong Man-chiu became the first guide dog user in the city for more than 40 years in 2012. He is totally blind and has spent much of his life without a canine to help him out. But he was ‘matched’ with Google and he says that life is now a lot easier with his faithful furry friend at his side. “I lost my eyesight in my 40s,” he says, “so it was very difficult to adapt to my surroundings. I had to relearn all of my skills, from walking to everyday life. It was isolating. I didn’t go out much for fear of bumping into things. But, with Google, I can come out and meet others easily. I can travel faster every day.”
The problem now, though, is that many of the laws regarding guide dogs were made more than 40 years ago and, claim some, are hugely outdated. Wong was barred from a betting shop two years ago because he was with Google. The Hong Kong Jockey Club later apologised and promised to allow all guide dogs in but the issue of pets being banned from so many places in the city has been a constant problem for the trainers and users. Basically, there’s no legal protection for trainers, particularly, to bring dogs into many eateries and public areas. “I’ve been rejected from restaurants before,” says Lee. “There are also restaurants that give me a designated seat, away from the crowd. That can be isolating and unhelpful.” Another issue is that a trainer or a foster family living in public housing can be forbidden from keeping canines, including guide dogs.
Cherrie Wu, a trainee guide dog mobility instructor from the Hong Kong Guide Dog Association, says: “There are some places that have rejected me because I’m only a trainer with a guide dog,” she says. “I’m not someone with a disability. It’s a difficult situation.” Wu says some private estates are negative too: “The management may have an ‘I don’t give a toss’ attitude. They don’t allow guide dogs-in-training on the property. Some have told me to sue them if it’s such a problem.”
The Housing Authority states that ‘keeping dogs in densely populated public rental housing estates may not only create noise nuisance but also hygiene problems’. However, the Housing Department provides some leeway for users to keep a guide dog that’s undergoing training – but this does not apply to the trainers.
HKSEDS has been campaigning to make changes by way of charity and awareness-raising events, and talks with hotels, corporations and hospitals. It’s conducted meetings with government reps and the heads of several departments in the hope they will help get the law amended.
Cheung, sadly, doesn’t foresee any legal amendments within the next few years. But he hopes, in the long run, that he’ll be granted government land to build a permanent space for guide dogs-in-training and that, afterwards, these canines can become a common sight in the city. “The government would only act if there’s a huge public interest and support for the issue,” he says. “Right now, a few dogs is not their problem. So nothing will happen until there’s an increase in the number of guide dogs in the city – and in the public interest that would come with it.” Perhaps, if you support the campaign, the terriers will be joined on the streets by a pack of guide dogs, leading the blind to a better life.
For details on guide dogs, visit seeingeyedog.org.hk.