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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Seeing Is Believing in Trained Dogs

When Yelena Rachenkova, who is blind, has a hankering for sausage, she simply tells her big dog, Daizy, "magazin" --store. Then, upon arriving in her neighborhood shop, she says, "kolbasa," and Daizy leads her to the appropriate counter.

Seven years ago, Rachenkova, 39, didn't even dream of such simple shopping. Born almost blind and able to see only weak flashes of light, she said her life changed when she got herself a smart, four-legged, furry companion who knows 10 different routes in Moscow.

Daizy, an Airedale terrier, is a graduate of Russia's only school for Seeing Eye dogs, an institution that has changed the lives of thousands of blind people over the last three decades. But now, funding is down, and the number of guide dog graduates is half what it once was. Located just east of the Moscow city limits and financed by the All-Russian Union of the Blind, the school is barely surviving during what its deputy director called the most difficult time in its 36-year history.

"Our government is absolutely not interested in us," said Svetlana Bochkovskaya, deputy director of the school, adding that appeals to private businesses have met with little success.

Speaking with a strong note of frustration in her voice during a recent interview on the school's lush, verdant grounds, Bochkovskaya explained the school's dilemma. "We are the type of organization that just cannot be commercial," she said, referring to its tax-free status. And, all the while, the school officials feel the obligation to provide dogs at no cost. "No matter how much we spend on the dog, the blind person will always get it for free."

Still, the school graduates 50 dogs a year -- at a training cost of $3,000 each -- from a comprehensive six-month program that prepares the mostly young Labradors and German shepherds for everything from trolleybus riding to picking up dropped keys to resisting the temptation to chase cats.

The training starts with simple commands like "sit," "lie" or "forward" and progresses to series of complicated tasks. Some classes take place in the town of Zheleznodorozhny, close to the school, or in Moscow, where dogs learn to ride in transport, cross streets and get used to big crowds of people. A broken-down, old bus in the rear yard of the school is used for new students who are not yet acquainted with public transport. Finally, after a final examination is passed, dog and future owner meet at the school, where the blind person lives in the school's hotel for two to three weeks of intense training.

Dogs, who go through a one-month probation period, are chosen on the basis of their health and, according to Bochkovskaya, such qualities as being good-natured, serene, quick-witted, obedient and alert. Over the course of their schooling, students live in warm rooms, walk twice a day, get two meals and are given lessons by a faculty of eight teachers.

"We used to train about 100 dogs a year, and the blind had to wait for up to two years for their turn," said Bochkovskaya, who started working at the school in 1981 as an assistant to the trainer after graduating from the Veterinary Academy in Moscow.

Ironically, she said, demand for dogs has actually declined in recent years as fewer and fewer of Russia's 300,000 blind people can actually afford to pay for the upkeep of a dog. The current waiting time for a dog is six months.

Rachenkova, who paid to have her dog Daizy trained at the school, is a rare exception to the usual policy of providing dogs for free, said Bochkovskaya. Her reaction to receiving a Seeing Eye dog, however, is more typical.

"I don't know what I would do if I didn't have Daizichka," said Rachenkova, the mother of two teenaged children. "A new life started for me. I got new friends due to this dog and even found a job."