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Guide Dogs Unlock Greater Autonomy for People with Visual Impairments

It’s “the most difficult job a dog can do,” but the Lara Guide Dog School for the Blind provides the intensive and time-consuming preparation dogs need for this crucial role. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) is proud to help our partner open new worlds for people with visual impairments.

SNF had the opportunity to hear directly from Lara about their groundbreaking work helping people with visual impairment in Greece achieve greater autonomy.

The first guide dog in Greece

The spark for the establishment of the Lara Guide Dog School for the Blind was Lara herself—the black Labrador who was the first guide dog in Greece.

When co-founder and President Ioanna-Maria Gertsou got Lara in 2003, there was little information available in Greece about guide dogs for people with blindness or visual impairment, unlike in other parts of Europe, where guide dogs have been around since 1920.

The changes that Lara brought to Ioanna-Maria’s life were significant. Ioanna-Maria stopped worrying about running into obstacles, started walking faster, and oriented herself more easily. Lara was also a great way to meet new people; the dog increased her productivity and taught her how to be more patient and stoic.

Gradually, interest in Lara’s work as a guide dog grew among other people in Greece with visual impairment, as well as the media.

The autonomy that a person with visual impairment gains thanks to a guide dog, who communicates with them only through touch, always moves us, no matter how many years go by. And the endless obstacles—poor street planning, lack of education for drivers, the carelessness with which people with visual impairments are treated in Greece, and the lack of a Greek organization to train and provide guide-dogs—led to the founding of Lara in 2008 and made it our life mission.

Lara, the Labrador, passed away in March 2019, at the age of 16.

Becoming their handlers’ eyes

The main purpose of the Lara Guide Dog School is to train guide dogs and make them available to people with partial or total vision impairment.

Guide dogs offer people with visual impairment the easiest, safest, and fastest way to move around—they become their eyes. Guide dogs obey 25 different commands, bypass all kinds of obstacles, locate seats, counters, cash registers, doors, stairs, transportation stops, passenger crossings, elevators, trashcans, and much more. They have the ability to look up and avoid obstacles that are not detectable with a white cane, such as balconies, road signs, and branches. Crucially, guide dogs can also disobey a command if needed, given that their handlers have no visual contact with the environment and may misjudge a situation. They can see from a distance if there is an obstacle, such as a vehicle parked on the sidewalk, and choose a different route. While the sounds of a vehicle running a red light might be confusing to a person with visual impairment, dogs can see the situation and stop.

Being a guide dog is the most difficult job that a dog can do. They are the only dogs that are responsible for accompanying people who have no visual contact with their environment, and they are often called on to solve problems on their own.

Lara picks dogs from carefully selected breeding programs, socializes them, and trains them in the skills a guide dog needs to become a person’s eyes. The process takes about two years from start to finish. First, the puppies are socialized by living with a volunteer foster family for a year and a half. Then, a specialized trainer teaches them the skills they need, always using positive reinforcement. Finally, they are co-trained with a prospective visually impaired handler, pre-selected by Lara, where the handler lives and works.

During their training, dogs are constantly evaluated for physical and mental fitness. The right disposition, with strong self-control and resilience, is the hardest characteristic to find in prospective guide dogs, who must be able to maintain their composure whatever happens around them. If a trainee dog doesn’t meet the criteria to become a guide dog, it is withdrawn from the training program and donated to a family as a pet.

Our guide dogs work for about eight years, and then they “retire.” This means that they stop being guide dogs and spend the rest of their lives relaxing as pets. Lara always acts in the interest of its guide dogs and, along with the handlers, the volunteers, and their families, will make the best decision for the dogs’ well-being.

Cultivating understanding and respect

Lara, advocating the principles of universal access, inclusion, and deinstitutionalization for people with disabilities, co-trains guide dogs and their handlers in the cities where they live and work, and encourages them to engage in the life of the community. It also works to educate schools, corporations, and the media about guide dogs specifically and about disability in general.

Lara provides its services free of charge and is committed to supporting the guide dogs it trains for life.For 13 years, the Lara Guide Dog School has worked to change perceptions around disability, cultivate empathy and understanding, and increase respect for animals.

In 2010, the Hellenic Parliament passed a law, updated in 2014 and 2018, which allows guide dogs access practically everywhere. Lara founder Ioanna-Maria Gertsou fights for the rights of guide dogs at the European level, as a member of the Board of the European Guide Dog Federation.

Thanks to the vital support of organizations such as SNF, we continue to work hard toward the goal of having more guide dogs in the near future to provide hope and autonomy to the people who need them.

Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

Adapted from a text by Lara Guide Dog School