Our long-ago friends

Guide dogs are resuming their helping roles in the city

Guided by his best friend Deanna, 60-year-old Mr Tsang Kin-ping cautiously feels his way through an MTR station. Instead of explicitly telling the visually-impaired Mr Tsang to cross the gap between the train and the platform, the furry companion takes the lead to step across it.

Mr Tsang is startled by Deanna's move, but regarded himself lucky as he is only one of the three people in Hong Kong that can enjoy guide dog service in the territory in recent years.

With light brown fur, Deanna is a Labrador Retriever that does not appear as tender as her name suggests. Passengers often keep sturdy Deanna at arms' length since she always looks serious and, for some, even aggressive. The unfriendly distance has troubled Mr Tsang and other guide dog users.

"They [local citizens] don't have basic knowledge about guide dogs, or how to serve guide dogs properly, and that bothers guide dog users," says Mr Tsang, the vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Guide Dog Association (HKGDA), the first non-profit institution providing guide dog services in town. 

Another example would be the refusal of entering restaurants or other public places because of the existence of the dog. Ms Inti Fu Tai-fun, another guide dog user in Hong Kong, was rudely refused by a head waitress to enjoy her meal in a restaurant with her dog Nana.

"It's true that pets are not allowed to enter restaurants, but guide dog is an exception," Ms Fu says, basing her argument on the Food Hygiene Code by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department that says a dog which serves as a guide for a blind person should be allowed into food premises. She even called the police to solve the matter, but soon left because of the long waiting time. 

But the situation of guide dogs was not always upsetting. Everything was very positive when Ms Fu and Mr Tsang went to United States of America last summer to collect their guide dogs and had a one-month pairing training session to break the ice. And in early January, one of the local dining groups, Super Star Group, starts to welcome guide dogs and their users to enjoy their meals in the group's restaurants.

"The re-introduction of guide dogs to Hong Kong after 38 years of absence have re-granted visually impaired people the right of making choices," Mr Tsang says.

Thirty eight years ago, in 1975, two guide dogs were introduced to Hong Kong. Due to the lack of facilities and knowledge to look after the dogs, the two guide dogs died because of sickness and traffic accident, according to HKGDA. Since then, the guide dog service was scrapped. 

The re-introduction has relit the hope of visual impaired people - they can now choose between using a cane and a guide dog. But since guide dogs have been absent in society for four decades, Mr Tsang is worried about society's lack of acceptance and knowledge.  

Speaking from his experience, he and Deanna are denied admission or discouraged to enter public premises, where free entry of guide dogs is actually protected by the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, for numerours times.

Similar to Ms Fu, an MTR staff member stopped Mr Tsang on the platform, and asked him to wear a sign labelled as a visually impaired person if he claimed Deanna is a guide dog rather than a pet. And in another occasion, Mr Tsang had to wait for the collective decisions of five-star hotels in the city on whether to accept his buffet reservations if he requested to bring his guide dog in.

The crux of the problem, Mr Tsang thinks, is the lack of education and training among staff members from all levels of the business hierarchy, both senior management and the frontline.

"It is the service providers' responsibility, not the passenger's responsibility to explain everything," he says, when it comes to the elaboration of the guide dog service. "They can't expect guide dog users to explain every single time in the following years."

According to Mr Tsang, HKGDA is providing education and training to staff members from various businesses. They are also striving for guide dogs' entry to hospitals, where all live animals are currently prohibited.

Any efforts made to improve guide dog services will not only benefit the three user-dog pairs, but also potential guide dog users. Mr Eddie Lee Kar-tar, a HKGDA guide dog mobility instructor, who is responsible for matching a suitable guide dog with a user and training the pair to coordinate, says as 10 more guide dogs puppies will arrive in the city around spring.

The puppies will then receive trainings from foster families, and receive knowledge on how to interact with human beings and behave appropriately on various social occasion. However, HKGDA has already foreseen some obstacles that puppy raisers will face when training puppies in public premises.

For example, although the free entry of legally recognised visually impaired people accompanied by qualified guide dogs is protected by the current legislation, guide dog puppies and their raisers have no legal grounds in Hong Kong, according to Mr Lee.

"If a restaurant refuses a guide dog puppy to be trained in it, it is not an offense," he adds. However, he points out that it would be "disastrous" as the puppies fail to be trained in real-life public settings.

Therefore, HKGDA is calling for the government to introduce new legislation to protect the free entry of guide dog puppies into public premises, and in the long run, to grant the same legal status of puppies with qualified guide dogs.

"However, passing a new legislation does take a long time,"says Mr Lee, hoping that all obstacles will be solved in near future.

At present stage, the group is planning to have 30 more guide dogs serving in the territory in five years. And to further develop the service, they are recruiting people who are interested in developing guide dog service in Hong Kong and hoping to construct an Assistance Dogs Centre that would serve as a training ground and veterinary clinic.

 

Reported by Vanessa Piao

Edited by Sophia Fu

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