IT IS believed that during the ice age some 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, men formed a lasting relationship with wolves. These wolves then evolved to become the domesticated dogs of today.
Since then, dogs have been our companions in all kinds of endeavours, even war. The earliest known use of war dogs was in 600BC and they were known to have been used by Attila the Hun and Frederick the Great. They were even used by the Soviet Union in World War II to destroy invading German tanks.
More recently, one Columbian police dog even had a US$10,000 bounty placed on its head by Colombian drug barons for damaging their business.
Besides their use in the military, dogs were also trained to become guide dogs to help soldiers blinded in World War I. It was for this reason that the first known guide dog training school was established in Germany.
Locally, Stevens Chan Kum Fai, founder and chief executive officer of Dialogue in the Dark (DiD) Sdn Bhd and Save Ones Sight Mission Bhd (SOSM), introduced Malaysia’s first guide dog, named Lashawn Chan, as part of the Dogs For Sight Campaign.
“I hope, with guide dogs, the visually impaired can be more independent in their mobility, leading a better life,” he tells Metrobiz.
Lashawn, a beige male Labrador, was brought to Malaysia, in early May. The dog is part of a memorandum of understanding signed between the non-profit organisation SOSM with China’s Nanjing Police Academy.
Ray of hope
Chan, a former business consultant for local and foreign direct sales companies, decided to start a social enterprise to champion the needs of the visually impaired after he lost his sight in 2007 due to glaucoma.
He started the Dialogue In The Dark non-profit organisation to run exhibitions and business workshops to help the blind find employment in late 2012 after securing the licensing rights from Dialogue Social Enterprise, Germany.
“It is the final jigsaw piece to advocating the importance of eye health to prevent unnecessary blindness among Malaysians,” Chan says of guide dogs.
Citing a World Health Organisation statistic, Chan says that as October 2013 some 80% of the 285 million cases of visual impairment in people around the world could have been avoided if awareness of various type of eye disorders and screening was better.
He said many people have a lackadaisical attitude towards eye health.
“I looked for ideas to hold an exhibition to create awareness about eyesight. I did some research and found DiD, which then invited me to Italy for a conference. The rest is history,” he said.
With RM180,000, a sum he borrowed from his business partner, Chan stared a company and obtained the franchise for corporate training.
“We do team buildings exercises in the dark. This gives a new perspective to communication among participants,” he said.
Subsequently, he met a local philanthropist who provided a RM200,000 loan for the company to pay for the franchise fees plus the renovations needed to set up an “experiential journey” exhibition in a 5,000 sq ft area in the Petrosains Centre in KLCC.
The exhibition saw blind guides leading groups of visitors through a dark room to experience what blindness means.
The visitors, in groups of up to eight people, are briefed and introduced to the use of a cane before embarking on their journey in darkness.
Escorted by guides, visitors spent between 45 and 60 minutes exploring the darkened galleries, which replicated daily environments such as a park, market place or a café.
Worldwide, he said more than seven millions visitors had participated in such walks over the past 25 years.
More than 6,000 Malaysians have experience walking in the dark since the first DiD exhibition was held in December 2013.
“Hearing visitors say they will not take their eyes for granted after the walk makes our work worthwhile,” he said.
With the success, the company is moving to the Jaya One mall, renting a 7,000 sq ft space. Being a social enterprise, it also focuses on addressing the social and economic barriers experienced by the visually impaired community.
“Through DiD, we employ, enable and empower the visually impaired to contribute to society,” he said.
For their first year, they reported RM500,000 in revenue, which is able to sustain their community works planned for this year.
Moving forward, they want to increase revenue by 50% annually.
That money, besides paying the salaries of 10 full-time and part-time employees, is channelled to other notable causes including a guide dog training school.
As part of the MoU, he said the police academy in China will provide up to five guide dogs over three years.
“They will also train our trainers for a year in Nanjing,” he said, adding that it will cost RM250,000 to train the dogs. The dogs will be assigned to the visually impaired without cost.
“Guide dogs serve as the eyes for the visually impaired, who also need to know the responsibilities involved in taking care of their ‘eyes’, which is emphasised during the training for both the dog and owner. Having a guide dog is similar to taking care of a child,” he says.
Apart from land and capital needed to build the infrastructure involved, he said trainers, veterinarians and breeders are also required.
“The challenge is always finding and selecting the right trainers. They need to be trained by guide dog schools for a minimum of one year before they can be certified as a guide dog trainer,” he said.
The dogs are trained to stop at traffic lights, road junctions and zebra crossings. The animal is also trained to stop at stairs, escalators and lifts to indicate to the owner what lies ahead. Chan says, in China, guide dogs are trained to walk on the sidewalks or pedestrian walk ways. However, he notes there are challenges using pedestrian walkways here as some of them have missing manholes covers and other hazards.
“We feel it is safer for us to walk on side roads instead. We are still training Lashawn the terrain here. He is also adapting to the Malaysian weather,” he said.
Targeting success within the next three years, Chan says there are also regulatory obstacles to overcome. He says public and government agencies involved need to understand that a guide dog is not a pet, it is a service animal to help the visually impaired.
“Apart from talking with the relevant authorities on improving accessibility for the disabled as well as allowing guide dogs and its owner to travel on public transport and public areas, we are also planning roadshows to create awareness about guide dogs,” he said.