He is probably the most active worker on the sixth floor of the Health Ministry in downtown Athens – he is certainly the most loved. Everyone says hello when they see him coming down the hall and most will steal a few minutes every day to come by his office and pet him.
His office mate, Stratis Hatziharalambous, head of the Health Education Directorate, can’t say that he isn’t a little jealous: Up until two months ago, he was the star of the sixth floor. Outgoing, sharp and generous – bringing in treats whatever the occasion – he is the colleague everyone would love to have. Now, his thunder has been stolen by Hector, his seeing-eye dog.
Hatziharalambous suffers from a condition that has led to a gradual loss of sight so that today he can only discern shadows. Even though he has never allowed his condition to get the better of him, using a cane to get around, Hector, a bouncy 2-year-old labrador, has opened up an entirely new world to him.
“Until now, my visibility was restricted to half a meter – to the end of the cane,” he says. “Now Hector helps me to see into the distance.”
Hector was trained by Greek Guide Dogs, the national training and development center for seeing-eye dogs for the blind and assistant dogs for the handicapped, founded eight years ago by the country’s associations for the blind.
Hatziharalambous was one of the founding members of the Panhellenic Retinopathy Association and today he is its president. Right now, the center has six seeing-eye dogs at work in Greece. And they work very hard: They have a huge mission and exhausting responsibility, which is why they are not allowed to work for more than four hours a day in their special harness. Over the other 20 hours they must be allowed to live like ordinary, pampered pets. In fact, guide dogs are retired after six or seven years because the job is so demanding.
Training takes two years, during which they live with a volunteer whose task is to socialize them and keep them happy and healthy. They then receive three to four hours of special training per day for another year. Once that step is complete, the dogs are introduced to potential users to ensure that they are compatible, a key factor to the success of the endeavor. When a match is made, the pair spend two months getting to know each other under the scrutiny of the experts who assess how the match is proceeding and whether there is a basis for a happy relationship.
“I have been working with Hector since early February,” says Hatziharalambous. “We were left alone in late April. It was hard for someone who has used a cane for 10 years to trust someone else to get around,” he admits.
But Hector is not just “someone else.”
“As soon as I put on the harness, he automatically assumes his role. When I say ‘Start,’ he starts. When I give him the right command, he find the nearest opening between parked cars so we can get off or onto a sidewalk. He makes sure it’s wide enough to fit us both. With ‘Search stop’ he looks for the nearest bus stop. If there’s an obstacle in front of me, he will stand between us to make sure I don’t trip. Every once in a while, he exercises ‘intelligent disobedience.’ If, for example, we’re about to cross a road and a bicycle I haven’t heard is about to go past, he will stop rather than obey the ‘Start’ command,” explains Hatziharalambous.
Hector recognizes words like sidewalk, ramps, zebra crossing, pole, stop, door, ticket, stair, elevator and dozens more.
“It’s an incredible experience,” says Hatziharalambous. “Of course I’m having to adapt as well. I can’t, for example, walk with friends on the street anymore or talk on my cell phone. I also have to be careful that he’s not being petted by passers-by because that confuses him.”
Hatziharalambous is very pleased so far. “We’ve already been to two concerts, a play and a stand-up comedy night together,” he says. “And we’ve made it back home from neighborhoods I was unfamiliar with. He’s done a great job. The only thing that bores him is meetings at the ministry, but what can you do?”