Outdated Hong Kong laws are holding back guide dog training, trainer says
More than 40 years after city got its first guide dog, those training them to help visually impaired people cannot have the dogs live with them in public housing and have no right to take them on public transport
More than four decades after the first guide dog arrived in Hong Kong, guide dog trainers say they are still hampered by legal obstacles.
While Hong Kong laws give visually impaired people the right to use public facilities with their guide dogs, the same right has not been extended to the people who train the animals.
This means, for example, that a trainer living in public housing cannot keep a trainee guide dog in their home, and have no right to take a dog into a restaurant or on public transport.
WATCH Hong Kong’s first locally trained guide dogs at work
Raymond Cheung Wai-man, chairman of Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services (HKSEDS), says the failure to change laws so that they cover certified trainers accompanying guide dogs is a major obstacle to promoting the use of guide dogs in the city.
“Hong Kong had its first guide dog in 1975, but the legislation has remained the same [since then],” he said. Laws in places such as the United States and Australia have been amended to give trainers the same rights to accompany guide dogs as visually impaired people.
Trainers condition a guide dog to react to sights, sounds and smells in a real environment, for which simulation is no substitute, Cheung says.
The Housing Department insists it cannot make an exception to the no-dogs rule in public housing for guide dogs undergoing training. The keeping of dogs in public housing is banned on hygiene grounds and because they can cause noise nuisance.
“As we understand from the guide dog associations, training has to be given to guide dog puppies to stop them from barking at night. The possible nuisance, in particular at night time, will affect nearby [public rental housing] households,” the department said in a a written reply to questions from SCMP.com. The department had already shown pragmatism by allowing guide dogs entry to public housing estates, it said.
Cheung, who set up Hong Kong’s first guide dog training centre and bred the first locally trained guide dog in 2012, said the public had become more accepting of guide dogs on public transport and in restaurants over the years. In practice, bus drivers in Hong Kong often used their discretion to let trainers board their vehicles with guide dogs, Cheung said, but the fact this isn’t covered by any law could cause problems.
“What if an accident happens? The insurance won’t cover the guide dogs and trainers because they aren’t protected by the law,” he said.
Cheung said bus companies had offered to let trainers conduct guide dog training in empty buses, but he said that completely defeated the purpose of the training.
“The most important part of the training is to get the dogs used to the environment that they’re in, the cars, the crowds, the smells. They need to train in real situations; how can they be trained in an empty bus?” he said. He was speaking ahead of International Guide Dog Day, which falls on the last Wednesday of April each year.
There are some 40 guide dogs in use in the city, but according to the International Guide Dog Federation, around 1,700 visually impaired Hongkongers out of a total of 170,000 have asked for a guide dog. HKSEDS says it takes about two years for a visually impaired person in the city to get a guide dog, and there are between 20 and 30 people on their waiting list.
Cheung said removing the legal hurdles to guide dog training would make it easier to alleviate the city’s shortage of guide dogs and trainers.
David Wong Man-chiu can attest to the value of having a guide dog. Now 66, he has had his dog, Google, since 2012.
“I turned from a visually impaired person using a walking stick to a guide dog user. The difference was very big because a guide dog can not only help prevent me bumping into obstacles on the ground, but also mid-air objects such as bus stop signs, and scaffolding.
“When I’m out with [Google] – since guide dogs are still quite new to Hong Kong – people ask me about this and that about a guide dog, making even an introverted, visually impaired person like me slowly become much more integrated in society.”
The most popular breed of guide dogs in Hong Kong and around the world are labrador retrievers, which are known for their gentle temperament and are of suitable size and strength. Cheung said with more guide dogs being born and bred in Hong Kong, the government needed to amend laws to allow proper training of them. The first four locally bred guide dogs were born in 2015, and five more puppies intended for guide dog training were born in March 2016.
Previously, most guide dogs in Hong Kong were imported from overseas before being trained locally. Ensuring guide dogs are trained locally is the number one goal of HKSEDS, since Hong Kong’s unique cityscape and features cannot be replicated elsewhere for training.
Guide dogs are trained to lead blind or visually impaired people around both still and moving objects, stop before any change in elevation, and find target objects like an MTR gate or a door. They must learn such things as how to navigate the city’s maze of escalators and get accustomed to the smell of raw fish at wet markets.
In Hong Kong, guide dogs must be at least one year old. Once they are assessed as suitable, they are trained for six to nine months.
Brenda Pang Oi-ting is one of seven guide dog trainers in Hong Kong. She and Fraser, a two-and-a-half-year-old black labrador retriever, have roamed widely through Hong Kong’s packed, narrow streets as part of Fraser’s six months of training.
“A guide dog can’t read traffic signals, but they can see if a car is approaching. A blind person usually relies on listening to the sounds of cars, but especially now when [new] car [models] can be so quiet, the dog makes sure it’s safe before letting the owner cross the road,” said Pang, 32, a trainer at HKSEDS, one of the city’s two guide dog associations. Guide dogs could also help their users avoid bumping into hanging objects such as bamboo scaffolding and advertising signs, she said.
Once a dog is trained, it is paired with a visually impaired person. The pair then undergo at least a month of training to get used to each other and familiarise the dog and user with walking routes.
Cheung said the most common misunderstanding the public has is how the relationship between dog and user works. “Guide dogs are not like [global positioning systems]. They don’t know where to go or know how to automatically find places. The visually impaired person is always alert and in charge,” he said.