Two blind Hongkongers described a newfound sense of fun and confidence in walking the city's streets after taking custody of two guide dogs, bringing to six the total number of such animals in the city.
Labradors Nera and Rally, both aged two, arrived last month along with their users, Andy Chan Kam-chau and Trada Ip Man-yi, after they finished a 26-day training course in the United States.
They were the second and final pair of dogs to be funded as part of a HK$719,000 pilot project by the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired and the Hong Kong Society for the Blind.
Two other dogs funded by the scheme arrived last year. Two others have been introduced in a separate scheme.
Chan and Ip, who both lost their sight to glaucoma, said the dogs changed their lives and gave them psychological comfort.
"For me, it's the speed that I haven't experienced before," said Chan, in his 40s. "Nera walks very fast and can take me walking between people. There's more fun in going out."
He previously had to use a white cane, and occasionally hit people with it by accident. "Sometimes people would be really unfriendly when you hit them," he said. So to avoid incidents, he would often choose to walk on the side of the street.
Ip said she decided to apply to the project after meeting Deanna, one of the dogs that arrived last year and is now being used by the vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, Tsang Kin-ping.
"She's very cute, and she helps her user a lot," she said. "I'm more confident in going out now. In the past, I needed my friends to pick me up if I was going to places I was not familiar with. Now I can be more independent."
The dogs were assigned to Chan and Ip a few days after their training started in the US, and it took time for Chan to get along with Nera. "At first she moped in the room. I tried to act loving and gave her treats, but she was quite cold to me," he said. "It just takes time. You have to be gentle and respect her. Then she will start accepting you."
Both said their dogs were adapting well to Hong Kong. Australian guide dog expert Ian Cox will check on their condition every three months.
The Society for the Blind said after the pilot project it would leave the job of developing guide dogs in Hong Kong to the Guide Dogs Association. The association is talking to the government and developers to look for a site to open an internationally accredited school to train guide dogs. It plans to provide guide dogs to 30 people in five years.
Two visually impaired people would be sent to Britain for guide dog training at the end of the year or early next, it said. One other would be sent to the US.