Maggie Moore and her beloved guide dog, Yıldız hanım, also known as Star the Dog, have helped Turkey take steps towards training the country's first guide dogs for visually impaired citizens.
In Turkey, nearly 750,000 people are registered as blind or partially sighted. While the United Kingdom, a country with a similar population, boasts nearly 5,000 guide dog partnerships for their 360,000 visually impaired residents, those in Turkey could only dream of a highly-trained canine to help them negotiate their way through life.
Then, Maggie Moore arrived in Ankara. Touching down in January 2014 with HMA Richard Moore, her husband and the newly appointed British Ambassador to Turkey, she immediately caused a stir in the capital. Local media were intrigued by the well-groomed couple and Maggie’s blindness. But it was Maggie’s constant companion, a golden labrador guide dog known as Star or Yıldız Hanım, who really stole the show. Over the past two and a half years, Star has always been by Maggie’s side, becoming one of the highest profile canines in the country. The lucky pooch was even invited on two occasions to the presidential palace.
Guide dogs are a new concept for Turkey, a country that still has a complex relationship with canines and where white canes and/or human guides are the tools afforded to most who are visually impaired. But guide dogs go a long way to giving blind people more independence.
“Having a guide dog by your side goes beyond having a pet,” says Maggie. “You are a working team, but Star is also my companion, my buddy. For me, being independent is really important, particularly if I want to go out on my own. With Star, this is possible.”
It wasn’t long before Maggie met Nurdeniz Tuncer, a successful young Istanbul lawyer who is also visually impaired, at a reception at the British Embassy. Nurdeniz had heard Maggie (and Star) on an interview with CNN Türk and took the opportunity to discuss the possibility of bringing guide dogs to Turkey. By October 2014, Nurdeniz established TRKD (Türk Rehber Köpekler Derneği), The Turkish Guide Dogs Association.
Many resources are needed for training guide dogs, to make them reliable companions and able to safely navigate an array of confusing and sometimes stressful situations. As founder and chairman of TRKD, Nurdeniz (who works pro bono for the association) says: “We are doing everything we can now to ensure that TRKD can cover costs of training for both an instructor and the dogs, supplying the dogs’ food, vet services, and routine care. Our aim is to support all guide dogs partnerships in this way and our plan is to have the first two ready by the end of this year.”
The first two in question are Lola and Kara, two golden labrador puppies donated to the TRKD. The breed is popular for this type of work because, as Maggie explains, it is essential to understand a dog’s background and history.
“I am often asked why rescued or abandoned dogs can’t be used and I have to explain that any dog selected as a guide dog candidate has to fulfill two really important criteria: their health and potential longevity and their nature. Basically, dogs have to have the right kind of temperament of not chasing cats, not neurotic etc. and can’t come from a background with physical problems that may shorten their working life.”
Word is also spreading about the program, thanks in part to Tahire Demircan who first interviewed the two women for her CNN Türk program and has since become a supporter of the association. She, in fact, has donated five additional six-week old Labrador puppies to TRKD, which have been placed with puppy walkers. It is hoped that the association will eventually be able to start a breeding program of its own.
Pioneering pups and instructors
In addition to canine companions, Turkey also needs instructors to help this fledgling program take off. The honor of being the first guide dog instructor in Turkey goes to 23-year-old Ece Önderoğlu, a fluent English speaker who studied in the UK. She is currently spending three months in Devon, England with the 15-month-old Lola and Kara. Together, they study under the guidance of Alan Brooks, a specialist guide dog consultant and trainer.
Önderoğlu will learn about training dogs, the needs of their impending visually-impaired owners and also how to assess puppy walkers for the future. She will then teach both the human and the dog these skills. Afterwards, Önderoğlu will return to Turkey as the country’s first Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI). Lola and Kara will be ready to start the next phase of their training in their partnerships with TRKD founder Nurdeniz herself and Ali İlhan, a researcher for Veli Ağbaba, CHP Deputy Chairman and Malatya MP. It’s worth noting, Ali Ilhan’s guide dog will be the first dog allowed into the Turkish parliament building.
Star: a shining example
A guide dog is much more than a simple opportunity for mobility. Maggie, who has close links with the British Guide Dog Association, highlights the correlation between having a guide dog and employment.
“‘Get a dog, get a job!’ is one of the UK association’s most recent and memorable slogans,” says Maggie. “Independence really increases opportunities for a blind person in getting and keeping a job. If we get enormous demand, working people will be at top of the list, but each will be selected on a case-by-case basis. Liberation is what this is all about. We want this to be a right, not a luxury, so we don’t want people to be barred by their economic status.”
In a country where nearly 85 percent of working-aged blind people are unemployed, guide dogs could go a long way towards empowering those whose disabilities have limited their opportunities. The goal of TKRD is not only to help enhance the quality of life for those who are blind. It is also to introduce laws and infrastructure to support both the visually impaired and their guide dogs. However, as Maggie and Star have already stolen hearts in the presidential palace, it is clear the country is on its way. Find out more about TKRD by visiting rehberkopeklerdernegi.org
Act right, help out
Get involved with the movement! The Association needs sponsors, funding and awareness-raising events. You can start by attending the TKRD’s fundraising event in Istanbul on November 26, 2016. There will also soon be a need more puppy walkers, which means a six-week-old puppy lives with you for around a year and you train them to a certain level. This is a critical part of development. It’s also important to spread the word about how to act around guide dogs on the streets.
Things to keep in mind:
- A guide dog is a blind person’s eyes, working to keep a person safe. Cuddles aren’t an option for a working guide dog. Maggie explains, “When Star is on duty, she is my mobility tool. She’s gorgeous but people shouldn’t make a fuss of her and certainly shouldn’t pet her, or even touch her, as doing this means distracting the dog from the task it’s performing.”
- Guide dogs must remain unfazed and focused, even in stressful situations. This means they should be ignored in large crowds, which can be difficult.
- Children need to be taught what a guide dog means and how to act. It’s important to address these issues, both in school and at home.
Editor's note: The original version of this article was published in the November/December 2016 print issue of our magazine and has been reformatted in its online version.