Bred for Purposeby Julia Bernicker July 26, 2018
At only 26 years old, Noach Braun arrived in America determined to become a guide dog instructor. He was alone, spoke very little English and had no money to pay for a training course. But Noach was inspired by his experiences training dogs for the IDF and wanted to use his skills to help the Israeli people. “This 26-year-old kid decides ‘I’m going to start a guide dog center.’ That’s amazing in itself—how many 26-year-olds do you know want to change the world?” said Michael Leventhal, Executive Director of the Israel Guide Dog Center.
Prior to Noach, blind Israelis had to pass an English test and then travel to America to retrieve a service dog and train with them for a month. And back in Israel, guide dogs and their owners were often unprepared for the different physical environment, in addition to the fact the dogs only understood English commands in a country that spoke Hebrew.
Noach wanted to change all of that, but was discouraged by the amount of rejection he received from American guide dog schools. As a last resort, he contacted the Israeli consulate, who put him in touch with Pennsylvania businessman Norman Leventhal. The two met the first night of Hanukkah and decided to raise the $100,000 necessary to send Noach to a guide dog training center in Ohio. “We think it’s interesting that an organization for the blind was founded on the Festival of Light,” said Michael, Norman’s son. “My dad said let’s do it, so we started a nonprofit around my kitchen table and started raising money.”
Two years later, Noach went back to Israel to establish the Israel Guide Dog Center in 1991 while Norman continued to raise funds in the U.S. Fast forward more than 25 years later, the center is now located south of Tel Aviv and has produced over 620 guide dogs for visually impaired Israelis.
However, not every dog bred at the center becomes a guide dog. Only about half make it, due to the intense training process that starts when the puppies are born. For their first two months, the puppies are exposed to different lights, sounds, materials and even cats, so they can start to acclimate to the Israeli environment. Then, they are given to local university students for a year of obedience training, where the dogs learn how to walk, how to behave in the house, and how to go to the bathroom on command. After this initial training period, they are evaluated to decide whether they will continue guide dog training, or become a “career change dog.” They’re still amazing dogs and they can still serve a purpose so we give those dogs to children with autism and soldiers with PTSD,” said Michael.
For the dogs who make it, they go through an additional four to five months of training, where they learn three important lessons that make these dogs unique: intelligent disobedience, critical space and decision-making. This is the hardest part of training, but the most important, as the Israeli environment poses different challenges than other parts of the world, such as frequent security barriers and missile attack sirens. In addition, Israeli culture is hard for blind people to adapt to. “In America, people are very cognizant of disabilities. But in Israel, they simply don’t have the same knowledge of blindness and being receptive to it,” said Michael. “Israelis don’t wait in line. We have to train the dogs to be Israeli and push into lines, so it’s a cultural thing as well.”
At the end of this process, the dogs can understand 40 commands in Hebrew. They are then paired with a client and spend around a month in additional partnership training. “We breed for purpose. So just because you are the next person on the waiting list doesn’t mean you are going to get the next dog. We pick the best dog for the best person,” said Michael.
The Guide Dog Center also has a partnership with the Eliya school for the blind, where they bring in dogs on a monthly basis and teach visually impaired children to become comfortable around dogs. All of these children may become potential clients of the center later in life, so by cultivating a relationship with dogs at a young age, the transition to a guide dog is easier.
Noach and Norman’s work has transformed the lives of countless visually impaired Israelis over the years and has granted them a new partnership with Amazon Smile. This new online platform looks and feels the same as a regular Amazon transaction, but with every purchase made, they will donate 0.5% to a charity of your choice. As one of the highest rated nonprofits in the country, the Israel Guide Dog center has recently become one of Smile’s selected organizations.
“When you name us as your charity, you have to go into the Amazon Smile platform to make your purchases,” said Michael. “You pay exactly the same, but the difference is half a percent of everything you buy goes into an account for the Israel Guide Dog Center.”
This new source of revenue will help the center train more dogs and continue the vital work they are doing within the Israeli community.