By Michele Chabin
Shir Tabac had always yearned for a dog, but it wasn’t until she completed her military service and went to college that she felt ready to make the commitment.
“It was the first time I was living independently, and I wondered how I could have a dog and do something good at the same time,” said Tabac, now a third-year chemistry student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “I realized that volunteering to train a guide dog was the perfect plan.”
Within a month of arriving at the Technion’s Haifa campus, Tabac contacted the university’s guide dog program – the largest fostering program of its kind in northern Israel and one of numerous ways Technion students are encouraged to contribute to the wider community.
Every year the organizations Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind and Seeing Eyes for the Blind in Israel ask students at the Technion and other university campuses to foster the puppies for an 18-month period in order to expose the dogs to the widest possible range of settings and experiences.
To accomplish this, the students bring their dogs just about everywhere they go, from lecture halls to sports stadiums, stores, restaurants, and on public transportation. Along the way, the students receive ongoing support and advice from the guide dog organizations’ professional trainers, who also provide the canines’ food and health care.
After a year and a half of fostering the energetic pups, the students return them. At this stage, the now-mature Labradors, golden retrievers and German Shepherds are ready to begin several months of intensive professional training to become seeing-eye dogs or other service dogs that children and adults with disabilities can rely upon.
To be accepted into the program, student volunteers must meet strict criteria and be willing to part with their beloved charges once they are trained.
“They have to love dogs,” but that is just the beginning, said Avital Margolis, marketing director of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in Beit Oved, a small town about 30 minutes south of Tel Aviv. “They need to follow our instructions. They need to teach dogs many things, including to relieve themselves in a fixed place every day before undertaking their responsibility to lead a blind person. The dogs need to be able to concentrate on that job alone.”
The foster trainers teach what Margolis calls “positive discipline.”
“The dogs are still puppies. By the time they come back to us for professional training, they need to not eat food wherever they find it, to not stand on the sofa, to not eat shoes,” Margolis said.
If the dogs cannot master those basic skills, they will not be suited for the advanced training required to become service animals.
The student trainers are a key part of the program. Though by law the service animals must be permitted in all public settings, the students often run into resistance by people who don’t understand the important role they are playing. The students are taught to be assertive about service animals rights, helping educate the public and turning the students into allies for the blind people who eventually will use the dogs full-time.
There’s no resistance at the Technion. Everyone from professors to cafeteria staffers are accustomed to seeing service dogs all over the campus.
“The Technion is very dog-friendly, and the service dogs in training have become part of the campus life and landscape,” said Alon Wolf, the Technion’s vice president for external relations and resource development. “In many ways it’s the university as a whole, and not just the students, who are taking part in this task that does so much for the greater good.”
Aside from being an academically rigorous, prestigious science and research university, the Technion encourages its students to get involved in community service, and helps organize projects from aid programs in Africa to a free student-run health clinic in Haifa, the Technion’s home city.
Avia Genossar, an undergraduate civil engineering student at the Technion, decided to foster a dog after speaking with students already in the program.
“I saw so many dogs being fostered here and realized this is a welcoming campus,” she said.
Genossar said fostering a service puppy is a full-time commitment.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard,” she acknowledged. “In the beginning I was waking up every two hours to walk her because she wasn’t potty trained. She has a lot of energy. Sometimes she doesn’t want to sit or walk. But she’s taught me a lot about the responsibility of caring for another creature. Fortunately, she is so cute it’s impossible to get mad at her.”
Genossar realized she had embarked on an important mission after speaking with a blind neighbor who depends on a guide dog.
“During our conversations, he told me how having the dog opens up the world to him,” she said. “Beyond helping him navigate obstacles, the dog has become his loving friend.”
Although Genossar is dreading the day she must return her dog, she said, “When I see blind people with their dogs, it really makes me very emotional to see the strong relationship they have with each other.”
Adi Nathan, a blind special education teacher, personal coach and specialist in digital accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, said the guide dogs he has had over the years have been indispensable.
“I have no problem not seeing. I’ve been blind since birth,” Nathan said. “What’s important for me is my independence, my joy, that I have a reason to wake up in the morning and do everything I dream of doing, that I can contribute to society and to people in my situation.”
Switching from a cane to a guide dog has significantly improved his life, Nathan said, not least because he has been welcomed by the community of foster trainers. He and the students get together to allow the dogs to run around unleashed – under the students’ supervision – and to learn from one another.
“I tell them what’s important for them to consider while they’re training the dogs, what their dogs are doing well or less well. I’ve formed friendships with Shir Tabac and the family of students,” Nathan said.
Tabac said it was amazing to see how Chai, her foster dog, evolved from a 3-month-old “fluff ball” to a dog who now provides support to a boy with autism.
She said she misses Chai every day.
“What helped after I said goodbye was knowing that Chai is doing something good,” Tabac said. “It’s what I wished for and trained her for. It’s the reason we all do it.”