April 28 was International Guide Dog Day – an event whose origins are lost in the mists of time, with no organisation claiming it as their own.
However, the day does at least guarantee a heartwarming story about an intelligent Labrador – and China was no exception.
Come Wednesday of last week Chinese state media put out a series of stories expounding the training that these dogs go through and the crucial roles they play in the lives of visually impaired people.
This wasn’t just an opportunity to write a feel-good story or put up click-bait pictures of puppies. It was also an opportunity to educate the public – even more important in China because these kinds of dogs are so rare.
Local media reckons there are only 223 guide dogs in service and the wider understanding of their role is so limited that their owners are often barred from entering public spaces because the animals are mistaken for pets. “Almost every time I try to get on a bus we are rejected,” Gao Zhipeng, a man from Taiyuan in Shanxi, complained to ThePaper.cn last year. “They don’t even wait for me to show my guide dog certificate before removing me,” he added.
China has over 17 million visually impaired people, according to the National Association of the Blind. In countries such as the UK and the US 2-5% of blind people typically use guide dogs. So if the proportion were roughly the same in China that would mean at least another 340,000 dogs going into service.
Yet currently China has just three guide dog training schools – one in the northeastern city of Dalian, one in Shanghai and another in Zhengzhou in central China.
In addition to overcoming the shortages of training schools for animals, the Chinese government also needs to do more to encourage the public to comply with laws that enshrine the rights of visually impaired citizens and their service animals to use public transport and other amenities.
In April Tencent News detailed the story of how a blind woman in Shanghai had been harassed by her local community for letting her dog defecate in public areas. The locals had been asked to put an area aside for the animal but they kept moving it because no one wanted it near their home. In other examples, guide dogs have been prevented from entering the Beijing metro because they weren’t wearing muzzles – something not required by law.
To help change public attitudes China News Network ran an article about an animal and his owner taking a flight from Dalian to Beijing on International Guide Dog Day. “Lu [the owner] was guided to his seat by a flight attendant and… Blake [the dog]meekly curled up beside his master, blinking, nodding and wagging his tail occasionally,” it reported.
The China Daily also took note of International Guide Dog Day, with a front-page story describing how the Dalian dog centre has trained 31 dogs to support Paralympian athletes at next year’s Winter Games in Beijing.
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