There are about 16 million visually impaired people on the mainland, but not many have a guide dog at their side to assist them in their daily routines. After witnessing how a guide dog changed her visually impaired mother's life, Wang Xin gave up her well-paying job at a Japanese trading company in 2010 and joined the China Guide Dog Training Centre in Dalian, Liaoning province, where she now works as a trainer. Despite the hard work and low pay, Wang, 34, says she feels satisfied when a dog "graduates" from the centre and begins to help people.
Why did you decide to become a guide dog trainer?
My mum is visually impaired. She became blind after I was born. When I was 2½ years old, I was already accompanying her to the factory every morning, and then I would go to kindergarten by myself. In the afternoon, I would go to her workplace to pick her up. In 2009, she became one of the first blind people in Dalian to receive a guide dog. After that, she could do many things that she could never have imagined before. She could go from home to my workplace to give me an umbrella or something to eat. She felt happier as she was able to do more for others instead of needing to be cared for all the time. When I saw how the dog had changed her life, I thought it was miraculous and so I began to think about becoming a dog trainer.
You studied psychology in Japan for nine years and worked in a Japanese company in Dalian as a manager. Did your family support your decision to switch careers?
At first, my family did not agree with my decision. Trainers have to stay with the animals and work with them outside in all sorts of weather throughout the year. And our pay is only 2,000 yuan (HK$2,510) or so a month. But I believe that how you feel about yourself is more important than what others think of you.
What must a guide dog learn in its two years of training?
In the first year, they are put with families to learn how to live with people. After that, they receive training at our centre. In the beginning, they learn basic skills like walking in a straight line, walking at a controlled pace, obeying orders and dealing with noise. Then they are trained on actual streets, where they learn how to cross roads, go up stairs, get on buses and the MTR, and how to behave in supermarkets and restaurants. A qualified guide dog must know how to react properly to 34 oral orders and find at least four designated places in busy downtown areas.
The training is said to be costly and many dogs do not pass. Is that true at your centre? How is the demand for guide dogs at the moment?
It costs about 150,000 yuan to train a dog from puppy to qualified guide dog in two years. Most of the cost goes towards vaccination, food and various physical check-ups. Only 20 per cent of the dogs, mainly Labrador retrievers, graduate from our centre. Since we began operating in 2006, 72 guide dogs have gone on to serve the blind. Now, 15 dogs formally graduate from our centre each year. But our ability to supply dogs is far below the demand. Over the past few years, we have received more than 40,000 inquiries about obtaining a guide dog.
What's the most difficult thing for a dog to learn?
Teaching them to make their own decisions when helping their owners navigate. The traffic situation in China is much more complicated than what it is in other countries. We cannot teach a dog to simply follow other pedestrians when crossing the street, as some people do not observe traffic regulations at all. So the dog must use its own judgment. Before taking the first step, the dog must make sure its owner can cross the street at an average walking pace.
What's your key responsibility at the centre?
I am in charge of the programme that trains dogs together with their future owner. After we decide on an owner for the dog, I will visit the person's home to familiarise myself with his daily routines and the places he usually goes. Then I come back to the centre with the person and help the dog and its future owner practise together for four to six weeks.
What's the main challenge a blind person encounters after having a guide dog?
The biggest problem is that many public places on the mainland refuse to allow entry to dogs, even guide dogs. In one instance, a school for blind people would not allow one of our dogs onto its premises unless its owner had official approval from the local disabled people's federation. This is largely owing to the lack of detailed government guidelines supporting the use of guide dogs.
I know your centre has been short on funds. Has it considered charging dog owners?
No, we won't do that. Our founder's concept is to let relatively poor people have the priority of owning a guide dog.