When Enrique Serrano collapsed from the epilepsy seizures he suffers, his dog Chug would guard him until recovery.
Before he got Chug, Serrano had been robbed while unconscious.
When Serrano, 51, needed to move around the city, Chug was always with him, leading the way.
Serrano is blind, and Chug was his guide dog.
Chug, a chocolate-colored Labrador, was one of about 35 guide dogs for the blind in Costa Rica, a country with about 82,000 visually impaired people, according to the National Guide Dog Association (ACOPEG).
Efforts continue, though, to bring more dogs to the country. ACOPEG works with Leader Dogs for the Blind, a U.S.-based foundation that breeds and donates guide dogs to blind people around the world.
The scarcity of guide dogs is not the only challenge facing blind Costa Ricans. ACOPEG members say much work remains in the struggle to debunk stereotypes of blind people and educate the public about guide dogs. In San José the working canines face a busy city with chaotic traffic, stray dogs and people who pet them not realizing it distracts them from their job.
“When I go to the university, all these women come and pet the dog,” Serrano of ACOPEG said. “I tell them to pet me instead.”
Jokes aside,ACOPEG and Leader Dogs are working toward fully integrating the blind into Costa Rican society.
“It’s a matter of educating people,” said Carlos Galluser, a Leader Dogs instructor and representative who recently visited Costa Rica to check up on the dogs.
Where Guide Dogs Are Made
Leader Dogs breeds golden retrievers and Labradors for the job of guide dog. The animals go through extensive training that lasts four to six months on average.
The needs of a recipient are evaluated and a dog is trained to meet the person’s needs.
For example, if a dog will be working in a city, it is trained to be patient and work under conditions of stress and noise, Galluser said.
Leader Dogs for the Blind was created in 1939, on a 14-acre farm in the U.S. state of Michigan. Since its inception, the foundationhas trained more than 13,000 dogs.
There are more than 3,000 guide dogs in the United States, 1,000 in Spain and about 500 in Mexico. Some 300 dogs are handed to people every year around the world. Last year, 50 traveled to Latin America.
All those dogs are donated free of charge.
That’s key, especially in Costa Rica, where many blind people have limited income since employers are unwilling to hire a person who can’t see, Serrano said.
Including breeding, training and everything else, guide dogs are valued at up to $4,000.
Plus, there are the costs of keeping the dog healthy. Leader Dogs grooms its puppies on special diets, and encourages recipients to continue them. In Costa Rica, ACOPEG receives money from corporations such as Pfizer and Purina to subsidize the cost of keeping a dog. Pfizer donates medicine while Purina gives out food.
Guide Dogs in Costa Rica
With companion Buddy at his side, Alberto Quesada, 65, spoke about having a guide dog.
“It gives me style when I walk,” he said, adding that a dog is “a thousand times better than a cane.”
Quesada is an active member of ACOPEG. He lost his vision seven years ago in what he describes as a rare case of internal bleeding from the frontal lobe of his brain.
In Costa Rica, he said, blind people face discrimination and unwarranted pity.
“A person one time handed me money just because I am blind,” Quesada remembered.
“We’re normal people.”
Even though laws have been put into place against discrimination – Law 7,600, passed in 1996, bans discrimination against people with disabilities – Quesada and Serrano said they still face prejudice, especially with their guide dogs. Restaurants sometimes won’t allow the dogs in. Buses are ill equipped for blind passengers, and jobs are scarce for those who can’t see.
Serrano and Quesada called out to the government to step up its efforts to bring equality for the blind population.
“There’s still a struggle for people to follow the law (against discrimination),” Quesada said.
Meanwhile, ACOPEG and Leader Dogs continue working with their guide dogs.
During his visit, Galluser visited San José and the neighboring cities of Cartago and Alajuela to conduct follow-up with guide dog recipients, talking to each owner to see if the relationship is going well.
According to Galluser, potential guide dog recipients must undergo a four- to sixmonth application process.
“There’s a bit of a waiting list,” he said.
Once a person is chosen, he or she travels to the Michigan site to get acquainted with the dog and learn commands in English, something Galluser said takes a bit of practice for non-native speakers.
Guide dogs can work up to 12 years.
Serrano and Chug worked together for eight. They grew close, with Chug joining Serrano on his bed for a good night’s sleep.
About a year ago, Chug developed a blood illness after being bitten by a tick.He began to tire more easily, and Galluser decided to retire him. In such cases, recipients can opt to stay with the dog or return it to the foundation.
Serrano chose to keep Chug, who now lives out his life at his home.He carries a picture of his furry companion in his wallet, and now uses a cane to get around.
“I miss him very much,” Serrano said.
For information on Leader Dogs for the Blind, visit www.leaderdog.org. For info on ACOPEG, call 219-6893.