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Seeing-eye dogs much more than just a guide for the blind

LINA GIANNAROU

‘I trust her with my life every single day,’ Ioanna-Maria Gertsou told Kathimerini about her guide dog, May. The 11-year-old female labrador is her constant companion.

TAGS: Animal Protection, Society

Ioanna-Maria Gertsou is a psychologist at Aghia Sofia Children’s Hospital, co-founder of the Lara Guide Dog School and an activist for people with visual impairments. She has survived some major ordeals during her life, but the one that she experienced earlier this month was among the worst.

That was the moment she saw her dog May – Gertsou’s eyes in the street and her constant companion – lying on the ground and struggling for breath. The female labrador was rushed to a clinic, where vets found that she was suffering from extensive internal hemorrhaging.

A couple of weeks ago, however, thanks to the tireless efforts of the doctors and the support of Gertsou’s online community of friends and acquaintances who scraped together the cash needed for the 11-year-old dog’s treatment, May was given a clean bill of health and returned to her person.

Together since May had just completed her training as a seeing-eye dog at the age of 2, it was the longest the pair had ever been apart. They do everything together: “She’s been to the theater, accompanied me to schools and has even been on television – always acting like the absolute professional,” says Gertsou. “She never disobeys me, she really loves people and she is incredibly disciplined. I trust her with my life every single day. I remember one occasion when were stuck between rushing traffic on the median strip of Mesogeion Avenue and a motorcyclist rode onto the sidewalk and zoomed right past us; she didn’t even flinch, but kept focused to make sure she got me across. She saved my life when a driver jumped an amber light and I was on the pedestrian crossing. She saw the car coming and made me stop. It’s incredible – these dogs are so aware of the huge responsibility they have.”

May is also the only dog in Greece that has a pass to enter a hospital so she can accompany Gertsou to work every day. And when the labrador was in the clinic, Gertsou had to make do with a white cane. “A blind person has to rely on the cane because anything can happen. For example, I fell over after bumping into a motorcycle that was parked on a sidewalk. These are the challenges, as are obstacles that are off the ground but protrude into the path of pedestrians and you can’t feel them with the cane.”

For Gertsou, however, the psychological toll of the separation was much greater. “Emptiness. The emptiness of a person who has lost a limb. That’s what I felt,” she says. “May is my companion, I love spending time with her and she makes me feel whole. It’s really hard when you’ve become accustomed to having a dog like this to suddenly be without it. She gives me so much and expects nothing in return.”

Raising the money to save May was another major challenge.

“Our school does amazing work, we have the best dogs, but we still can’t cover the expense of a sudden illness,” Gertsou says of Lara. “It’s really hard to find donors as seeing-eye dogs and assistants for people with handicaps are seen as an overly expensive service. Yet these dogs give a person independence for eight or nine years.”

Gertsou was fortunate to get the response she did. “The people didn’t let me collapse emotionally or financially. I am very grateful.”

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