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(Yonhap Feature) Blind people find independence in life with guide dogs

All Headlines 09:00 July 22, 2016

By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, July 22 (Yonhap) -- For many years, Jeon Jo-eun relied solely on a white cane to navigate her environments. Last week, however, the 24-year-old blind student found much more reliable support in going about her daily life: her guide dog Hodu.

After finishing the necessary program to receive a guide dog on Sunday, she was excited about having a more independent and relatively safe life with the faithful and highly-trained Hodu.

"It's been only two weeks since I began 'route training' with Hodu to get familiar with my daily routine courses. But I definitely feel more safe and comfortable when I walk on the streets and take the subway compared to the years with a white cane," Jeon said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"I believe Hodu will bring some positive changes in my life. And it is already happening. We are interactive and help each other. Hodu helps me avoid obstacles and reach my destinations safely. In turn, I'm responsible for feeding, discharging, grooming and bathing him."

Jeon, who studies counseling psychology at Sahmyook University, added Hodu will help her make new friends and become her "most reliable" friend too.

But most blind Koreans do not qualify for a guide dog provided by Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance Co. as part of its corporate social responsibility activities. Jeon is one of the country's 60 users of guide dogs which are registered with the Ministry of Health and Welfare and are currently in service.

As of December 2014, the country had 252,825 registered blind people and 40,334 of them met the standards set by the company to apply for a guide dog in terms of disability rating. Blind people with the first and second-grade disability ratings can apply for a guide dog.

"Those who are blind but have a map in their heads to workplaces or schools can effectively use a guide dog. Guide dogs play a helping role," said guide dog instructor Bruce Shin. "A screening process to estimate the number of potential applicants found about 1,000 blind people are actually in demand for guide dogs."

In 1993, Shin began his career on the Samsung Group's guide dog task force team. The group studied guide dog schools in New Zealand and the United States to find out how to build Samsung Guide Dog School. It is the country's sole guide dog training and education center located in Yongin, about 50 kilometers south of Seoul.

In the past 23 years, the school has provided an accumulated 187 guide dogs to blind people free of charge. Every year, 38-43 Labrador Retrievers enter a training program and about 10 of them pass a final test to contribute their talents as guide dogs. It takes more than 100 million won (US$88,000) per dog from birth through the training and testing programs, he said.

Seven weeks after birth, guide dog candidates are sent to volunteers who raise them for a year and teach them basic skills, manners and companionship, all essential traits to support their blind users, in the "puppy walking" program.

These days, scores of volunteers are on the waiting list to participate in the program as parents increasingly want to present an invaluable moment of living with a dog to their children.

"Habi came to us in April. He initially couldn't control his poop and pee but now he can. He is loved by my two daughters and has learned how to mingle with people," said Im Yu-jeong, a puppy walker in Banpo, southern Seoul. "More often, our family gathers in the living room for chats or snacks due to Habi," said Im who is working from home for one year to care for the puppy.

After the one-year program, the puppy walker returns the dog to the school to allow it to undergo a training course for six to eight months in more than 50 sites in Seoul and metropolitan areas. And then tests await for the trainee dogs.

On July 13, guide dog trainers James Park and Jerry Lee came with 20 guide dog candidates to the Sunae Station in Seongnam, just south of Seoul, to train them for 30 minutes to one hour per dog.

"This training program is to have guide dog candidates get accustomed to the facilities crowded with people such as apartment complexes, subways, department stores, escalators and crosswalks," said guide dog trainer James Park, adding there still remain things to be improved when it comes to guide dog etiquette.

There are people who try to feed, touch, or take a photo of the trainee dogs without asking for permission at all. Such acts distract the dogs and cause them to lose focus on training. "Please love them only with your eyes," he said.

If they complete the training program and pass a final test, the trainee dogs begin their duty as the next generation of guide dogs. If not, they are delivered as pets. After serving up to eight years, they retire and are adopted by those who want them as pets.

Even if the total number of guide dogs in service is not big, the users of 60 guide dogs have benefited greatly from the welfare program offered by a private company, not by the government.

After years of hesitation, Lee Jeong-heon, a 26-year-old and 133-centimeter-tall computer instructor at a welfare facility for the blind in Jamsil, southeastern Seoul, decided to apply for a guide dog and received one in 2013. Its name is Goeun.

"I am very short and was afraid of going out alone even with a white cane. But I am not alone with my guide dog Goeun anymore. Guide dogs are totally different from white canes. Goeun always empowers me and makes me more confident and independent," she said.

Users may want to extend the time with their guide dogs beyond eight years, but that is not possible. However, they can have a new guide dog partner.

Kim Kyoung-min, 29, an English teacher at Inwang Middle School in northern Seoul, was an early adopter of a guide dog. She submitted an application for a guide dog at the age of 19 and received one when she turned 20. Guide dogs are allowed to be given to blind people aged 20 or older in Korea.

"Midam, my first guide dog, gave me what I wanted for 19 years -- it was freedom. I can step out with my guide dog without the help of my family. In the past, one of my family members used to accompany me due to safety concerns," she said.

The outspoken teacher, now with her second guide dog Taeyang, pointed out that there are still many cases of guide dogs and their owners being kicked out of restaurants.

"A lot of restaurants do not allow the blind with guide dogs in, saying customers don't like dogs or dogs may lose hair and it is unhygienic. They don't care about the blind people's human rights and the laws that protect their right to enter public places with their guide dogs," Kim said.

She voiced a need for "some improvement" in the public awareness of guide dogs in Korea.

Chung Dong-hee, in charge of Samsung Guide Dog School, said the school is making better efforts to encourage the right attitude towards guide dogs and related etiquette. It has carried out an awareness campaign mainly at elementary and middle schools.

"There should be more private-sector companies which have an interest in the guide dog project. Samsung Guide Dog School can't absorb most of the actual demand," he said.

Globally, a total of 21,000 guide dogs, including 10,000 in the U.S., 5,000 in Britain and 900 in Japan, are in service, according to Samsung Guide Dog School, a member of Britain-based International Guide Dog Federation.

kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr
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