Cover Guide dogs Bryan (left) and Funny (Image: Tatler Hong Kong/Affa Chan)

There’s hope for Hong Kong’s visually impaired residents, as the city’s first guide dog training school, backed by revenue from an NFT project, opens this summer

Walker is more than a guide dog to Rebekah Lam’s family. Seven years ago, her father, who suffers from inherited retinal dystrophy and can barely distinguish light and distance, took a misstep and fell onto the light rail track in Yuen Long. All his belongings fell out of his bag and his hearing aid battery fell off. “That was when I knew he couldn’t just rely on canes; he needed a companion,” Lam says.

Back then, Raymond Cheung, the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services, was advocating the use of guide dogs in the city, setting up kiosks around town to speak to people about the idea. “My father came across Cheung’s booth and stepped on a seeing eye dog’s tail by accident. To our surprise, it didn’t bite back,” Lam recalls. “We decided to give the seeing eye dog service a try for a month; our lives changed completely.” Seeing eye dogs are the same as guide dogs.

Walker, a ten-year-old Labrador Retriever, became Lam’s father’s eyes in November 2014. “In the past, passers-by avoided my father when they saw him using his cane. Now, when they see his seeing eye dog, people warm up to him and make small talk about Walker; restaurant owners read the menu to him. He has been happier, safer and less lonely, and I feel relieved,” Lam says. “We see Walker as family. I call him ‘little brother’.”

Cheung, who has been training guide dogs for more than a decade and describes his work as “sacred”, says that the animals are more reliable than canes. They help visually impaired avoid obstacles, such as temporary roadblocks, in their usual routes, or cross the road in a noisy environment that disrupts audio navigation.

Cheung also says guide dogs are great mental support. “People with acquired visual impairment suffer more emotionally compared to those who are born blind,” he says, adding that some require treatment for depression. “The former need to adapt to the sudden loss of sight. They struggle with tasks as simple as using the bathroom. But some of the people using seeing eye dogs no longer need to take antidepressants. They see the dogs as their soulmates.”

Walker is one of the 50 guide dogs in service in Hong Kong. Cheung says this is far from the number needed. According to the International Guide Dog Federation, around one per cent of visually impaired people in the world are willing to use guide dog services. According to the Census and Statistics Department, in December 2014, there were around 174,000 visually impaired people in Hong Kong. “That means we need at least 1,740 dogs,” says Cheung.

The lack of financial support is one of the biggest obstacles for his non-profit association, which provides guide dog services to users for free. “One dog costs HK$300,000 from breeding to training; there are additional medical expenses if it gets sick during its service period,” Cheung says.

The situation is expected to improve since NFT Plus, a homegrown NFT production company set up by PR company Memo Plus, launched an NFT project featuring working dogs on Opensea in May; the first series focused on guide dogs. Profits from the project are being donated to Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services to support the construction of the city’s first guide dog training school in Ta Kwu Ling in the New Territories, set to open later this year. “We previously mostly relied on our donors’ support, so the Working Dog NFT project has given us a lift,” Cheung says.

Despite Cheung’s decade-long lobbying of government departments— including the Labour and Welfare Bureau, Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, Housing Department, Transportation Department and Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department—to ensure that guide dogs have access to public facilities, there are times when private estates, small restaurants and privately owned red minibuses refuse guide dogs entry. “They are under the impression that the dogs may bite or make a mess,” Cheung says.

As the training school opens, Cheung expects that his organisation will expand and become more self-sufficient. The school, which has been converted from a disused village school campus, will be equipped with a frozen semen bank, a breeding area, a vet treatment room, isolation kennels and three studio flats where guide dogs and applicants will live together during the matching phase. There will also be an outdoor training area with setups mimicking different urban scenarios: a footbridge, stairs, a training path with puddles and slippery glass surfaces, and a tunnel so dogs learn to get used to echoes and different lighting conditions.

The school is a major milestone in the city’s guide dog services, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of public education and policymaking. As Lam puts it, “if more people accept that seeing eye dogs are assistants to the visually impaired and not pets—if there could be more understanding than criticism—that would be a huge step in the right direction” towards a more equal, more inclusive city.

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