Labrador pups train to become the eyes of the visually impaired

Dogs become "man's best friend" in the truest sense when they serve as guide dogs for the blind.

Directed, filmed and edited by Tang Dafei. Translated by Wang Xinzhou. Polished by Andy Boreham.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Wang Chunsun, founder of Erxing, gives a dog basic training at the center in Shanghai’s Yangpu District. Before his center opened, all guide dogs in the city were trained at a base in Nanjing.

We believe that if we can parlay the experiences of other countries to more institutions in China, a modern, effective industry will be created.

Dogs become “man’s best friend” in the truest sense when they serve as guide dogs for the blind.

Helping make that possible is Wang Chunsun, a dog-training specialist who returned from Canada to China nearly two decades ago.

Last year, he founded Yunnan Erxing Dog Guides Training Ltd, a business dedicated to training guide dogs. So far, two canines have completed the course.

His center fills a void in Shanghai. Previously, all guide dogs in the city were trained at a base in Nanjing in the neighboring province of Jiangsu.

The new training center is hidden in an old neighborhood in Yangpu District. It has a reception-style room in the front and kennels to house dogs in the back. All the trainees are young Labradors selected from certified breeders.

The area is perfect for guide-dog training because it is a microcosm of the environment where the dogs will work. It has Metro stations, bus stops, stores, schools, supermarkets, wet markets, residential complexes and large volumes of pedestrians and vehicles on the streets.

“Every day, guide dogs and their trainers may encounter new, unexpected situations for them to deal with,” Wang explained. “This environment helps a lot.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Lu walks about town, confident of Amy’s guidance.

Training dogs is easy, but training guide dogs is difficult. A newcomer to the business needs to successfully train 12 dogs before becoming qualified. Wang himself has trained at least 230 guide dogs. His goal is to increase the numbers of qualified dog trainers in Shanghai.

Zhang Shiping, 27, is one of the two trainers at the center. A native of the southern province of Guangdong, she has been in the industry for two years.

At the center in Yangpu District, she has been working for a month with Ash, a 1-year-old Labrador.

“Ash is a bit shy and timid, and when we first met, she practically ignored me most of the time,” she said. “She sometimes doesn’t dare detour around barriers. But after weeks of training, with proper encouragement and rewards, she has become bolder and we have formed a close bond.”

The first step of training is to teach dogs to be obedient. The dogs learn basic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” “stand” before being taken out for street training. All the commands are in English instead of Chinese so the dogs won’t get distracted by talk on the streets.

“In the beginning, we give dogs treats when they do something correctly,” Zhang said. “And then, when conditioned reflexes are formed, we reduce the treats bit by bit so that they develop habits without rewards.”

Before becoming a guide dog trainer, Zhang worked in an animal-testing lab, but guide dog training was always her dream. “Our family has been raising animals since my childhood, and I find interaction with animals very comforting,” she said. “And this job helps people.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

All the trainees in the center are young Labradors selected from certified breeders. 

Wang’s career path has been more dramatic. He majored in chemical engineering in college and worked as an engineer before starting his own Internet cafe business in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province.

But a casual browsing of TV shows changed his life entirely. He watched a documentary about how Canadian people train dog guides to help disabled persons improve their lives. Wang suddenly realized that was what he wanted to do.

He emigrated to Canada with his newlywed wife and became a volunteer for an animal institute. Several months later, he was recruited there as a professional.

Both Wang and Zhang agree that patience is the most essential trait for a trainer.

“It is to some extent repetitive work,” Zhang explained. “You have to repeat orders countless times and repeat the training session as well. If you tend to lose it easily, then this job is not for you.”

Wang said he chose to come back to China ­— despite the fact that his family is still in Canada ­­— because he saw progress in the country, especially in Shanghai, toward acceptance of guide dogs as social support.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Saddles attached to a dog’s uniforms help guide their blind masters.  

“Although it didn’t have much communication with other countries, the Shanghai Disabled Persons’ Federation managed to come up with their own training methods, and most of them are actually effective,” Wang said.

But demand exceeds supply. At present, Shanghai has 38 guide dogs in service. It’s a drop in the bucket set against the approximately 90,000 visually impaired people in the city.

According to the standards of the International Guide Dog Federation, a service is “popularized” if 1 percent of blind people have access to a guide dog.

One difficulty is finding the right puppies to train. The Labradors at the center are selected from nearly 2,000 puppies available from breeders.

“We don’t care if a puppy looks good or not,” Wang said. “We pay attention to their personalities and health conditions. For example, if a puppy doesn’t have strong enough joints, it might not be able to do the job without getting hurt.”

But when it all works out, the results are heartwarming.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Lu Mingqiang, who is blind, was taught how to attach the uniform and saddle on his guide dog Amy. 

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

“Dormitories” for dogs in training

Zhang Shiping, a trainer with the institute.

Lu Mingqiang was the first person to get a dog trained by Erxing.

After losing his eyesight 10 years ago due to glaucoma, Lu had to rely on a blind man’s stick to get around before Amy came into his life. The 2 kilometers between his home and a friend’s office, which he frequently traveled, used to take him about two hours. With Amy guiding him, the short trip has been cut in half.

Amy is about 16 months old. She’s quiet but steadfast. When the pitch-black Labrador met Lu for the first time at the center, she was soon nuzzling her head against his leg.

“I never had a pet dog before, but I felt that we hit it off almost immediately,” Lu said.

He received training for two weeks before he could take Amy home with him. He had to master 30 commands in English and learn how to use the guide saddle attached to Amy’s “uniform.”

“Amy controls the movement of the saddle, and I can sense it moving left or right,” Lu said.

The success of Lu’s case will help Erxing gain membership in the International Guide Dog Federation. Wang said once that occurs, the business will be able to tap more knowledge from countries that have developed mature guide-dog systems, such as Canada, the United States and Japan.

“We believe that if we can parlay the experiences of other countries to more institutions in China, a modern, effective industry will be created,” Wang said.

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