Tank commander Eli Yablonek is credited with singlehandedly dispatching four Egyptian tanks in a fierce battle, before being struck by two enemy missiles, during the Yom Kippur War. It cost him his left arm and his sight.
The 21-year-old received a citation for bravery, but all that his country could offer him in compensation for no longer seeing was a white cane.
Yablonek, now a 67-year-old grandfather, confidently declared that, “I don’t feel like a blind person. I can do almost anything.” That’s because he has his guide dog Glen, a yellow Labrador who accompanies him at home in Afula, Israel, and on his travels around the world.
Yablonek was in Montreal recently on behalf of the non-profit Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind. Founded in 1991, the centre was the first of its kind in Israel and is still the only internationally accredited guide dog centre in the Middle East. All of its services are offered free of charge.
Yablonek had to move to New York to get his first and second dogs, leaving home for six weeks at a time. He was thrilled when he was finally able to get a dog in Israel.
Yablonek is one of more than 650 visually impaired Israelis who have been provided with a guide dog by the centre. That partnership lasts for the duration of the dog’s working life, approximately eight years.
Yablonek and the centre’s founder, Noach Braun, were recently in Montreal for the first time, where they were hosted by Israeli Consul General David Levy. He is very familiar with the centre, having grown up in Rehovot, not far from the centre’s Beit Oved location. “This is a cause that is really close to my heart,” Levy said.
The visitors spoke about the centre’s mission and the necessity of finding financial support abroad. Ninety-four per cent of its budget is derived from donations, mostly from Jewish communities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
There is a long waiting list for dogs, Braun said, as there are about 24,000 legally blind people in Israel.
The centre is now able to place about 35 dogs a year, he said, but it hopes to increase that to 50. Having a guide dog has given him independence, said Yablonek, who married, had two children, ran a business and took up sports like tandem cycling, swimming and skiing.
Although a Canadian Friends of the Israel Guide Dog Centre has existed in Toronto for more than 15 years, the centre is not well known in Montreal. It has had its faithful supporters here, though, notably Joe and Beverly Schlesinger.
Another Montrealer, Ora Stolovitz, said that her son, Gary, who works as a doctor in Atlanta, recently visited the centre and was amazed by what he saw.
The centre breeds and trains the dogs, all Labs, which are desirable because they can handle change and are eager to please, said Braun.
The centre relies on hundreds of volunteers to foster the 120 to 140 puppies that are born each year. After being weaned at two months, the puppies spend their first year with their foster families, who provide them with affection and basic training. Deputy Israeli Consul Rotem Segev recalled that as a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, her class participated in the fostering program every year.
The young dogs return to the centre for six months of training. Forty to 50 per cent of them will be deemed suitable to becoming guides. The rest mostly go to soldiers suffering from PTSD, or children with autism or other special needs.
“All do good things,” said Braun. “We do not force dogs to become guides. They are happy to do it.”
Then, the dog and prospective client train for three weeks together at the centre, and another four weeks at home.
After their retirement, the dogs are placed in a loving home, said Braun. If necessary, psychological help is available to their owners, to get over the loss.
“We are very caring of both our four-legged and two-legged clients,” he said.
In Israel, attitudes toward service dogs have changed dramatically over the years, he said. They can now be taken to almost any public place, since the laws were changed in 2016.
Yablonek admires Glen’s calmness and intelligence. “We were in New York, in Times Square at rush hour, with tens of thousands of people around. You cannot believe it, how Glen took me through that – no problem at all,” he said.
It’s important to him and a matter of pride to have an Israeli-trained dog, namely because Glen understands Hebrew and takes commands in that language, rather than English.
“Israel is a different environment from the United States or Canada,” said Yablonek. “They are taught for our needs and the needs of our country.”