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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dogs Lead the Way to Normal Life

When Raisa Galantseva, who is blind, needs to go to the bank, she tells her dog Blanca "sberkassa," and the dog leads her from her home to the door of the building.

This is the third guide dog that Galantseva, 54, has had since cataracts left her legally blind 18 years ago. Her first two dogs, a collie named Gina and a German shepherd named Longa, were trained by Russia's only guide-dog school, in Kupavna, a small village to the east of Moscow.

Last year, when the school was nearly closed for lack of funds, a number of Kupavna instructors were forced to leave their jobs. This June, they put their much-needed qualifications back to work, at the Dog Assistants to Invalids center - from which Blanca, a Ca de Bou, was the very first graduate.

"We all have 10 to 25 years of experience in this field," said Svetlana Bochkovskaya, one of the new center's instructors and the former deputy director of the Kupavna school, which she joined in 1981 after graduating from the Moscow Veterinary Academy. "We can't let all of this go to waste."

Bochkovskaya and four fellow instructors founded the center with the help of the Red Cross and two sponsors, British American Tobacco and dog food company Royal Canin.

So far, Bochkovskaya said the center has been hampered by a lack of facilities, which has forced trainers to work at their own homes or the homes of the people receiving the dogs. Such problems have nonetheless more than halved the usual 50,000-ruble price tag for training a dog.

With the money from sponsors and additional money earned through private lessons for dogs whose owners are able to afford it, the center hopes to cover its costs and continue providing trained dogs for people like Galantseva for free, she said.

"Someone has to do this," Bochkovskaya said. "We would have been called enthusiasts in the past, but now the only words to describe people like us are 'fools' or 'fanatics.'"

Yet it is thanks to such "fanaticism" that the city's blind can continue to enjoy life beyond the four walls of their apartments. Galantseva said her dog knows as many as 10 various routes, including the paths to food stores, pet shops, bus stops and the drugstore.

"I don't see how I could walk outside without a dog. I feel absolutely free," she said. The 10 days she spent alone after her previous dog had died and Blanca was still being trained were extremely difficult for her, she added.

Blanca is a rare breed in the profession, which usually leans toward German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, Bochkovskaya said. All of the dogs selected for guide training meet strict requirements, and must be good-natured, calm, obedient and alert.

Basic guide-dog training begins much like regular training - with simple commands like "sit" and "lie down" - before progressing to more complicated tasks. A dog has to be able to navigate various barriers, locate destinations and ride on public transportation.

Such tasks are only the beginning. Tatyana Usacheva, 35, said her German shepherd, Ritsa, is a great help when she and her husband, Andrei, 38, who is also blind, go swimming at the Black Sea. While one swims in deep water, the other holds Ritsa at the shore before letting her swim out and guide the first back. "She gets nervous when I swim away without her," Usacheva said about her dog.

Unlike the Usachevs, many blind people face loneliness - another problem a dog can solve. "A dog sets these people free psychologically," Bochkovskaya said. "By loving them unconditionally, it helps them get through life."

Galantseva agreed. "A dog becomes such a part of you," she said, trying to distract Blanca from some cats sitting nearby. "She's still young, but with the years we will become one team."