by Annie Doris, Belvedere, CA, raiser of Weslia
Cars, mopeds, and bicycles buzz throughout the city of Florence, Italy. They whiz through stop signs and traffic lights, and they don’t stop for pedestrians. Even for a sighted person the roads are treacherous, and Italy must be one of the most stressful and difficult places for a working guide. One afternoon, we saw a blind woman and her guide dog walking down the narrow crowded cobblestones of Via Corso, and we were surprised and interested to discover that there was a guide dog school nearby.
One day after school, my friend Giuliana and I rang the bell of the Scuola Nazionale Cani Guida per Ciechi di Firenze-Scandicci (National School of Guide Dogs for the Blind in Florence-Scandicci, Italy) and we waited outside the large gate. The lush green plants of the courtyard and the big yellow villa that circled it looked beautiful and refreshing in the hot afternoon. Just as we were buzzed inside, the little padded feet of two Golden/Labrador retrievers rushed to greet us along with their trainers — Ludovica, Soro, and Massimo.
Over a cappuccino, they eagerly asked us questions about how guide dogs are trained in America. They were surprised to learn that Guide Dogs for the Blind has around 300dogs on the San Rafael campus, because their Scuola holds less than 50 dogs at any time, and they “graduate” roughly 25 dogs per year. The Florence Scuola has ten breeders that live in the countryside until they are ready to give birth. They used to use only Labs, but now they also use Goldens because they have found them to be the most obedient and least distracted dogs.
Since 1995, volunteer families around Florence have raised 267 puppies. Much like our program in the US, a puppy in Italy must learn five basic things: to eat at fixed times in his bowl, to do his business outside of the living space, to walk on a leash at the correct gait, to behave politely in public spaces and vehicles, and to not be distracted by city noises. They must be able to respond to the commands “avanti” — forward, “indietro” — backward, “sinistra” — left, and “destra” — right. “ [A puppy] must act like a member of the family, [like] a little ‘bambino’ who is educated and well behaved.”
At 4 months, the puppies are placed with families for socialization and they return to the Scuola kennel every month for a week to be examined and evaluated. At the age of 10-12 months, they are sent to the Scuola to be evaluated as guides and breeders.
The Scuola di Cane Guida program started after World War I when many injured blind veterans came home from the war and needed both guidance and companionship. Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American woman, played a huge role in helping the guide dog program flourish in both Europe and the US. While working in Switzerland, she and Aurelio Nicolodi founded the Scuola in Florence-Scandicci in 1929; Mrs. Eustis also founded the Seeing Eye program in the US.
While we discussed the history of the Scuola and its program, trainer Soro brought in Lana, a frisky puppy, who surprisingly jumped up on the conference table! Soro explained that Lana’s behavior was because she was not wearing her working harness and was considered a “normal” dog without it. Once he put the harness on her, she transformed into a guide dog and quickly obeyed the commands he issued.
Before we helped feed the dogs, we toured the campus. Picture a bright ochre-colored villa surrounding a garden shaded by cypress trees and green leafy bushes. We walked through the many winding gravel pathways of the garden and saw an overpass of stairs used for training the dogs. There was also an amphitheater where the guide dogs were presented to their new blind owners. We walked inside the villa and observed the dorms of the visually impaired who stayed there for around two weeks while working with their dogs.
We walked to the kennel kitchen on the other side of the campus and loaded the food into the bowls and walked down to the kennel. The dogs howled as they heard the food slosh in their bowls. Just like our guide dogs in the kennels, they stood up on the fence and waited eagerly as we dished each one his meal. They ate feverishly and licked every last drop in less than a minute.
Italian guides must be super dogs because they face such stressful conditions in helping their owners navigate around the city. They might be surprised to come to California where drivers stop for pedestrians. Although the methods of training in Italy might be slightly different, both Italian and American guide dogs are loved and both guide dog groups want to raise the best possible dogs.