Schechter kids help fund Israeli guide dog
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Schechter kids help fund Israeli guide dog

Diane Honig, a Schechter parent whose husband is blind, tells first-graders at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford about the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. Courtesy SSDS

The first-graders at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford might not ever have a chance to pet the cute puppy being raised with the help of the tzedakah dollars they collected in November. But they know the pup is doing important work as a guide dog for the blind – far away in Israel.

It costs $500 to procure a pup for the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, and $25,000 to foot the cost of training and caring for each dog over the eight years it will work with its master. Because it does not charge for its services, IGDCB depends mainly on contributions.

The Schechter pupils learned about how guide dogs help the visually impaired through a visit from parent Diane Honig, whose husband Barry – owner of a management consultancy – became well-known for bringing his guide dog to business meetings.

In Israel, however, many people are not aware that dogs can help the blind, said Jill Shames, international liaison for IGDCB. Out of more than 27,000 registered blind people in the Jewish state, only 170 are guide-dog assisted at present. Even though a rigorous screening process disqualifies up to 95 percent of applicants, Shames said many more could be paired with dogs if they knew of the service. Established in 1991, it is the only one of its kind in Israel.

The puppies, born to breeding pairs that live with families, are trained to respond to Hebrew commands while staying with “foster parents” for their first year. Afterward, they’re assessed for acceptability. Six out of 10 generally are accepted as guide dogs, and the others either get adopted by their foster families or by people who have children with special needs such as autism or visual impairment. “We have a list about three years long of people who want our ‘rejects’ or retirees,” said Shames.

The dogs are familiarized with typically Israeli obstacles such as bus-stand posts or streetlights in the middle of sidewalks, concrete barriers at street corners, and cars parked partly on the sidewalk. And since stray cats are virtually everywhere in Israel, they’re exposed to cats at a young age to help them get over their fear and excitement.

“We also breed for personality,” said Shames. “They have to be gentle and obedient but also have real self-confidence so they can refuse instructions if they feel there is a dangerous situation that their owner can’t perceive, such as when crossing the street. It’s not so easy to get those two characteristics in one animal.”

When the dogs are ready, they are paired with masters based on compatibility – walking speed, leg length, personality, and other specific characteristics. The clients stay at the center’s campus for a three-week training period, and a trainer accompanies them home for the first subsequent week. If at any time the match doesn’t work out, the center takes the dog back.

IGDCB also sponsors activities such as walking groups to help the blind integrate into society. “The dogs make independence possible, and also facilitate socialization because people come over to the owners constantly and ask questions,” said Shames.

She has set up a site (mitzvahdog.blogspot.com) where contributors can learn about the puppies and download photos, logos, and information. Many American kids like to include these on bar or bat mitzvah invitations and place cards, Shames said.

“We encourage them to try to see if they can raise $500, which is the cost of a puppy,” she said. “Kids come up with all kinds of wonderful ways to do that. Some children in Pennsylvania raised thousands of dollars through a dog-and-owner walkathon. Another child took friends to a make-your-own pottery place, decorated dog bowls, and auctioned them. Another baked organic dog treats and sold them at the shul gift shop. One girl ordered ‘dog-bone’ necklaces online and sold them at a profit. She sent the difference to us.”

For details, contact American Friends of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, 732 S. Settlers Circle, Warrington, PA 18976; (267) 927-0205; or info@israelguidedog.org.

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