Turkey’s first guide dogs lead the way to independence

Meet the puppies at the vanguard of an initiative to improve quality of life for Turkey’s 750,000 visually impaired citizens.

Photo by: Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World
Photo by: Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World

President of Turkey’s Guide Dogs Association Nurdeniz Tuncer (C) and inspiration for the initiative Maggie Moore (R) stand with their guide dogs Kara and Star alongside Turkey’s first certified guide dog instructor, Ece Onderoglu (L).

Robin Amos Robin Amos is a staff writer at TRT World. @RobinGPAmos

ANKARA — The British ambassador’s residence in Ankara has hosted many distinguished guests, but some of its latest visitors have been attracting a special kind of attention.

Tarcin, Tara, Kaymak, Aslan, Combis, Jasmine, Turi, Kaju, Tabs, Boncuk, Lasi, Ritzy, Clara, and Kara are the puppies at the vanguard of a project which hopes to change the lives of as many of Turkey’s roughly 750,000 visually impaired citizens as possible.

Turkey’s Rehber Kopekler Dernegi, or Guide Dogs Association, was founded in 2014 as the first organisation of its kind in the country, and is now starting to bear fruit. The charity has begun training puppies, with 23-month-old Kara – meaning "black" in Turkish – becoming Turkey’s first and, as yet, only homegrown guide dog.

Her owner, 38-year-old lawyer Nurdeniz Tuncer, is the head of the organisation. The initiative’s story began with a meeting between her and Maggie Moore, whose husband Richard Moore is the British ambassador to Turkey. Both women are visually impaired.

Seated next to Tuncer in one of the well-appointed rooms of the ambassador’s residence, where fine oriental vases and a set of tiles of the Chinese board game mahjong wait to impress guests, Maggie Moore told TRT World how they first spoke at a reception in the same building three years ago, after Tuncer heard her on television with her guide dog Star. Tuncer wanted to know where she could get one.

"I had to explain that there was no Turkish guide dog association, and therefore I didn’t think she could," Moore said.

"And I jokingly said to her 'unless of course we were to start a Turkish guide dog association...' And because this woman has more energy than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, she immediately said 'yeah, why not, let’s do it!'"

Canine celebrities

As the foundation and the dogs have come under the media spotlight in Turkey, the latter have been gaining something of a fan following. The day after a documentary about the foundation was aired by television channel CNN Turk, Tuncer and her dog were met with applause and shouts of "Kara!" in Istanbul.

Thanks to this programme and others, Tuncer said people often recognise Kara in the streets:

"We’re going alone [out in public] and they say 'oh she’s very famous, do you know her?' Yesterday, actually, we were walking with Kara and two old ladies [came up to us and one of them said] 'don’t be scared, she’s a guide dog [called] Kara'…. 'I saw them on TV!'"

In April, Star was even given diplomatic accreditation by Turkey’s culture and tourism ministry to attend the commemorations of the 102nd anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli.

Sometimes things can go a bit too far, like when people try to pet and feed Kara while she is working. Tuncer tells them not to do so, as it can cause a guide dog to be distracted and undermine its delicate training, but they often say, "I can’t stop myself. So cute!"

Although the attention their guide dogs receive can sometimes be overwhelming, Moore and Tuncer hope the publicity will benefit visually impaired people in Turkey. (Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World)

But more important than such annoyances, the publicity has given Tuncer and Moore the opportunity to change perceptions.

Emre Tasgin, the president of the Association of Visually Impaired in Education (EGED), which works to support both students and the 1,000 visually impaired teachers in Turkey’s education system, told TRT World that being pigeonholed is one of the main challenges faced by disabled people.

"Society tells the visually impaired person 'you can do this profession,' 'you cannot do this profession,'" he said. "I think a respect for differences must take root in society."

Moore, for her part, said the focus should be on normalising disabled people by "taking away people’s fear, and their fear of offending," through, for example, encouraging employers not to feel embarrassed to ask a blind person how they would be able to do a certain job.

"It’s great to give us the opportunity to appear in the media, to demonstrate – I hope – that actually we’re just the same as everybody else, and that not being able to see is only one aspect of the people we are," she concluded.

The path to independence

Going back to the Ottoman era, there has long been state support and charity for disabled people in Turkey, including the visually impaired. Until recently, however, the emphasis has mainly been on material needs.

This initiative, by contrast, unambiguously focuses on the psychological and social benefits guide dogs can bring: confidence, independence, and a greater sense of freedom.

"If you are independent, you can have a job, you can make money. So you will not be different to other people – equality," Tuncer said. She champions the motto "get a dog, get a job."

Moore stressed her belief that people deserve more than to merely survive.

"I think it is absolutely the right of every human being to feel that they are a valued member of society and that they are contributing to that society," she said.

Until she received Kara, Tuncer preferred to not use the white cane often used by visually impaired people to find their way. After her sight worsened in recent years, she wasn’t able to go out alone at all.

Clinical psychologist Muharrem Ocal, 28, who is visually impaired, is EGED’s secretary-general and works at Ulus State Hospital in Ankara. He said that people who share his disability may "feel safer with a guide dog then someone using a stick."

"For example, when crossing the road or when taking the metro or bus," he added.

This was the case for Tuncer. The first time she and Kara began working together was in front of the camera.

"I was very excited, because I knew that she would change my life," she said.

The responsibility of looking after her new companion was demanding to start with, but she describes her experience after the first couple of days as amazing.

"To travel alone, to go somewhere. To go to the hairdresser, or shopping, it’s very important to go alone," she said. "[They are] very basic, very simple things for you, but very important for us."

Because Kara can't make eye contact with Tuncer, she touches her with her paw when she wants to get her attention. (Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World)

From the warmth of the way they speak and joke with each other both Tuncer and Moore are evidently good friends. Indeed, they have much in common. For one, they both first developed the same rare eye condition at ten years of age.

Juvenile macular degeneration – so-called because it begins at a young age, unlike more common age-related macular degeneration – involves the gradual breakdown of the part of the eye responsible for central vision. In practise, this means they can’t see anything directly ahead of them.

Another experience both women share is having studied at university after growing up in supportive environments which encouraged aiming high, an experience which may have influenced their focus on raising the status of those who share their disability in society.

That goal is hard to fault, though for some the priorities are more mundane.

Blind newspaper-seller and aspiring poet Murat Karakaya, 44, told TRT World he likes the idea of having a guide dog, but more important for him is that "every day I have to ask at least 10 people to understand which bus is my bus."

Besides, he doesn’t think he has space in his apartment, or the money, to keep a dog.

However, the foundation provides the dogs – as well as food, veterinary services and toys and additional support – for free. Tuncer said guide dogs can live in small spaces, though both she and Moore stressed that deciding to keep one means making a long-term commitment to care for the well-being of a sentient creature and it might not suit every blind person’s needs or lifestyle.

From puppies to pioneers

Although one of the roles of a guide dog is to provide companionship to its owner, its main duty is to safely guide him or her along walkways and across roads, avoiding obstacles such as signposts and traffic, and stopping at corners.

A doubt occasionally aired on Turkish social media sites is whether guide dogs would be able to successfully navigate the streets of a densely populated and rapidly developing city like Istanbul, where pavements are not always in good condition and construction work is constantly underway. This concern is shared by Karakaya, who said it is one of the main problems he faces on a daily basis.

But Moore said that these and similar difficulties are surmountable, and that they are covered in the dogs’ training.

Ece Onderoglu, 26, is now Turkey’s first certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor after being sent by the association for training in the UK, where she began training Kara.

Present with Moore and Tuncer during the interview, she said that although it took some time for Kara to become accustomed to the different conditions in Turkey, for the new puppies it’s been "faster progress than I thought it would be."

"With these puppies, because we started training them in Turkey, and they grew up in Turkey as well," she said, explaining that they the dogs instinctively understand when and where to stop.

Onderoglu is training guide dog puppy Aslan in Turkey. While it takes a short time for a guide dog to bond with its visually impaired owner, it retains a lasting bond with its trainer. (Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World)

The process of turning a puppy into a full-fledged working guide dog takes one-and-a-half years and begins when they are six months old. At that age, the dogs must spend one year being properly socialised and exposed to as many different environments as possible.

This is where Moore said interested members of the public can help the initiative the most, by volunteering to look after them in their homes and become puppy-walkers.

"[Guide dog puppies] need to be walked regularly, they need to be where there are large groups of people, they need to be in places where they are required to sit quietly … anybody who was willing to help us with that would be doing an incredible thing for a visually impaired human being," she said.

After the year with the puppy-walker comes to an end, the dogs undergo training for five months in how to perform their future responsibilities, then one month training together with their future owners. It takes around another month for the dogs to bond with their owners through being fed and groomed by them, but Onderoglu said they don’t forget their trainer.

"Even when I still see Kara, she gets really excited. I’m like a kindergarten teacher that the kids love," she said.

Next steps

Later, after the interview, the harnesses which the dogs wear to signify they are "on duty" are taken off, and they are let outside. Kara promptly runs into the fountain at the back of the garden and splashes around while the others play.

It’s a reminder that they are still puppies at heart, although when Kara’s harness is put back on she immediately straightens up and becomes alert, seemingly aware of the responsibility that also rests on her shoulders.

Guide dogs know how to work hard, but when their harnesses come off they can also play hard. (Omar Elfwafaii/TRT World)

While their initiative faces challenges over accessibility in public and private spaces, the need for greater awareness from business and property owners, and the legal status of guide dogs – with new regulations currently being discussed by a parliamentary commission –  Moore and Tuncer are both excited by what they’ve accomplished so far, and what the future holds.

"We really do feel proud, because – we hope that – we have begun something that is really going to make an important, incredible difference in a lot of people’s lives," Moore said.

The foundation is now planning to expand all over Turkey, and is preparing blind assessment, mobility, and puppy walker training programmes at the Zorlu Centre, a commercial and residential complex on the European side of Istanbul.

To keep raising awareness, Tuncer has begun writing a blog in which she describes her experiences with Kara as she travels with her by subway, taxi and bus, and across the Bosphorus by boat. By testing the boundaries of where guide dogs can go, she hopes to keep breaking down the obstacles blind people face.

This seems to be the deeper mission of Turkey’s first guide dog association. It is itself intended to be a demonstration of what visually impaired people are capable of given the space and the opportunity to use their talents.