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SEVEN blind people in the Balearic Islands are using the services of guide dogs, animals which come from the School for Guide Dogs under the auspices of the ONCE Blind Foundation in Madrid and from another training centre in Rochester in the United States of America. Mari Carmen Soler, the director of Social Services of ONCE's branch in the Balearics, said that five of these dogs are on Majorca, one in Ibiza and the seventh is helping a blind person living on Minorca. The training centre in Madrid is the only one in existence in Spain with the result that the excess in demand for these skilled animals has to be satisfied from its North American counterpart with which the Blind Foundation of ONCE has signed an agreement. In both cases, the owner of the guide dog is required to be of adult status and to have passed a series of tests in which as much attention is given to the blind person's personal profile as it is to the dog's. Soler explained that the purpose of the exercise is “to match up the character types” as harmoniously as possible.
Before a dog is assigned to an owner, professionals from ONCE examine social and psychological reports of those aspiring to have a guide dog, as well as the specific needs of each applicant. The same matching process approached from another angle shows that a dog with a “quiet nature” will be “partnered” with a human being of the same behavioural traits. In contrast, a livelier animal will be assigned to a blind person who, for example, “has work where he has to be on his feet for long periods of time”.
Soler pointed out that there is a waiting list of blind people applying for specially trained dogs; for animals coming from Rochester in the United States, hopefuls can expect to wait a year, or one and a half years for those coming from the training school in Madrid. Blind people in the archipelago who are assigned one of these dogs, are obliged to go to these training centres to join their future “companions” for a period of time (three weeks in the case of Madrid and a month in that of Rochester) with the aim of “mutual adaptation”. The cost of each dog is “between 18'000 and 24'000 euros”, although the ONCE Guide Dog Foundation bears the costs of training, so that the blind person who finally has the dog as a professional companion, does not have to pay anything. Labrador dogs are the breed best able to adapt to assisting blind people, although there is a small percentage of other types, principally golden retriever and German shepherd dogs. These animals begin their training at an early age, between “eight and nine months old”, after having been selected for their special aptitude (character, loyalty, resolution) and will follow a training programme that will last according to the dog's individual capacity, but usually between nine months and a year. Their life averages a span of 13 years, although many animals have to leave the services of their owner “when they get old and start to lose their faculties”, so that a blind person may need to have two or three guide dogs during the course of his own life. ONCE was originally founded to help the blind, but has now widened its activities to cover a variety of disabilities.
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