Interview with Brian Francis of the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association

What is the history of the HKGDA (Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association) and how important is it to the blind and visually impaired in Hong Kong?

Guide Dogs have not worked with visually impaired people in Hong Kong since 1976.

Inspired by the development of guide dog services in other Asian countries,  a pilot project was implemented in 2010 through two agencies for the visually impaired in Hong Kong, Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired and Hong Kong Society for the Blind. Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association was also involved in this pilot project. As a result of this successful pilot project four blind Hong Kong residents received training with guide dogs from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, USA and returned to Hong Kong with their guide dogs. These four guide dog teams are all working successfully.

In June 2011, Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association was registered as a charitable organization in Hong Kong (Reg. No. 91/11219) and at the end of the pilot project in 2013 took over responsibility for the development of guide dog services in Hong Kong.

Our Mission – Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association supports the ideal of independent living in a barrier free society for all residents of Hong Kong by providing a cost free service for people with visual impairment, autism and other disabilities to enhance their independence and to improve their life through the provision of a professionally trained dog.

Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association will garner support from the government of Hong Kong to ensure that all necessary legislations protecting access for blind persons and their guide dogs are in place and enforced. Additionally, Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association will promote the awareness of guide dogs to the general public and public services.

The importance of a guide dog service in Hong Kong is that it gives visually impaired citizens the option of working with a guide dog for their mobility needs. Independent mobility can be enhanced with a guide dog for those blind persons who live an active lifestyle by providing a safe and efficient form of mobility.

Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association is an applicant member of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF). This federation sets very high standards for all member schools to achieve and maintain in all programs within the guide dog school. It is these high standards that ensure our dogs, staff, clients and all other constituents receive the highest standards of training and service. We aim to become full members of the IGDF by 2017.

 

Do the dogs only act as guides or is their role also as companion?

The guide dog’s primary role is to guide it’s master safely in all conditions. When not working, the guide dog is just like any other dog, having the same needs as all pet dogs. The relationship between a guide dog user and their guide dog is a very close and special one and guide dog users frequently express the pleasure they gain from their guide dog as a companion and friend.

How many dogs do you currently have in service in Hong Kong and how many do you need to meet the needs of the visually impaired in HK?

There are currently six guide dog teams working in Hong Kong. Four from Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association and two from a separate developing school.

Government statistics from 2009 showed there are 122,600 visually impaired people in Hong Kong. Globally, we know that only between 1 – 2% of the visually impaired population will use a guide dog. These figures lead us to believe there are at least 1,200 visually impaired in Hong Kong who would use a guide dog.

One of our goals within our 5 year plan is to train 30 guide dog teams by the end of 2018 and then provide up to 12 guide dogs a year with current staffing.

The first of our guide dogs to be trained with their guide dog users in Hong Kong will occur in 2015.

 

What is the ideal breed of dog for guide dog service and what kind of training do they require before entering service?

Over the years many breeds of dog have been trained as guide dogs.

The most popular breed used globally today is the Labrador Retriever. This breed has a good range of size, is easily kept due to its short coat, is generally healthy and has a gentle but willing temperament.

Golden Retrievers and cross breeds between Labradors and Golden Retrievers are also popular for guide dog training.

Guide Dog puppies are raised by volunteer families until they are approximately 14 months old. The Puppy Raising program is designed to ensure that all our puppies are socialized and exposed to all the environments they will meet as a guide dog later in life. The puppies learn basic obedience, good social manners and build a positive attitude to training.

At about 14 months of age they start their formal guide dog training with a qualified guide dog instructor. This training takes about 6 months.

The dog is trained to wear the guide dog harness, respond to directional commands, stop to indicate changes in elevation (curbs and steps) and avoid obstacles on the pavement. The dog is also trained to be aware of moving traffic when crossing roads and act if the safety of the team is in peril.

The guide dog is blessed with a degree of intelligence and initiative. These qualities are used by the dog to make decisions and to locate destinations that the guide dog user wishes to find. The dog can find doors, steps, buildings and even specific points such as the button for an audible pedestrian signal. It is these qualities that make a guide dog such an attractive option for many blind people.

Do all dogs make the cut or does it take a special dog to pass training?

Because the standard for qualification to become a guide dog is very high, only about 50% of the dogs will become guide dogs.

Dogs not used as guide dogs may have a ‘career change’ and be used to provide other services such as companion dogs for the elderly and terminally ill, emotional support dogs, autism dogs or dogs for the deaf. Others will simply become pets.

 

How many trainers do you have on staff?

We currently have three trainers on staff. one qualified guide dog mobility instructor and two trainee guide dog mobility instructors.

The trainees are spending the first two years of their three year training program with Guide Dogs for the Blind in the UK. as part of our relationship with the International Guide Dog Federation. This school is very large and well established. Our trainees will receive much experience which we cannot offer at this time in Hong Kong. After the two years spent in the UK, the trainees will return to Hong Kong and complete their training here under the supervision of our qualified instructor.

 

How long does it take for the dog to be fully trained and ready for service?

Following Puppy Raising, guide dog training and then training with the selected guide dog user, the dogs are typically 20 – 24 months of age when they graduate with their guide dog users.

 

What are the current rules regarding guide dogs in public spaces and are they allowed everywhere?

Hong Kong has legislation allowing access for a person using a guide dog to enter all places where the public are routinely admitted.

The MTR and major bus systems all allow access for guide dogs as do most large shopping malls, restaurants and other businesses.

Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association has developed educational and public relations programs which have helped in educating business owners and corporations to allow guide dogs into their premises.

Occasionally a person with a guide dog will be refused entry into a taxi, restaurant or other place. In most cases, with some education, the business will relent and allow access.

 

How advanced is Hong Kong when it comes to accessibility for the visually impaired and do you think the situation is improving?

Compared to many other countries, the fact that Hong Kong has legislation guaranteeing right of access for guide dogs puts Hong Kong among the more forward nations.

I believe the government and people of Hong Kong wish to live in a society where there is access for all and the effects of disabilities can be minimized. As more guide dogs appear on the streets of Hong Kong, the acceptability of the guide dog should grow.

How do people in Hong Kong react to guide dogs when they see them on the street?

Mostly very positively! Our dogs are attractive, friendly and like to be with people. Working guide dogs create much interest because many most people are not used to guide dogs in Hong Kong. It is unusual for people to show fear of the guide dog because of it’s calm disposition.

 

The puppies are so cute- when are you expecting your new furry students?

We are planning to import 8 more puppies in 2014 from established guide dog breeding programs around the world.

Two puppies will arrive in July from Guide Dogs for the Blind in California, USA.

Six more puppies are scheduled to arrive in September and these are being sourced from the UK and New Zealand.

We will continue to obtain puppies from established guide dog schools that are members of the International Guide Dog Federation and we will start our own breeding program is 2015.

 

You have quite the celebrity with Deanna Guidedog- has her fame helped bring attention to HKGDA and the visually impaired in Hong Kong?

Deanna is a wonderful guide dog and her owner, Mr. KP Tsang is also a great ambassador for Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association. Mr. Tsang does much to promote guide dogs in Hong Kong and is a member of our Board of Directors.

Deanna has her own Facebook page which has over 34,000 likes! She is indeed a star!

Together, Mr Tsang and Deanna have done much to bring attention to HKGDA.

 

What is the best way for people to support HKGDA?

There are several ways that people can support HKGDA –

First, abide by several simple rules when meeting someone with a guide dog:

  • Don’t refuse access
  • Don’t distract or feed the guide dog
  • Do offer assistance to the guide dog user if they appear to need help.

As a registered charity HKGDA recruites volunteers to help us in many differing ways such as assisting with office work, attending events where HKGDA has a presence, assisting with transportation needs, becoming a Puppy Raiser or becoming a speaker for the organization. Our program cannot survive without the huge support we receive from volunteers. Anyone wishing to volunteer can contact us through our website at www.guidedogs.org.hk or by phone at 3188 1736.

Our program is dependant on financial support from foundations, corporations and the public. A donation to HKGDA is used to maintain and develop our program so that we may provide the option of a guide dog to as many visually impaired people as possible. No matter how small or large, all donations are most welcome.

Brian Francis

Director of Business Development and Training

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