September 8, 2011

Assistance Dogs in the Amazon

September is National Guide Dog Month, a time set aside to raise both funds and awareness about the critical role guide dogs play in the lives of disabled persons.

The training and adoption of guide and therapy dogs in Iquitos has always been one of Amazon CARES' most cherished goals, but in our efforts we have met with a great deal of resistance.
Before Amazon CARES came to Iquitos, the prevailing attitude about dogs was that they were unclean, something closer to vermin; the bands of roaming, flea-infested street dogs do little to discourage the notion. Hospitals refuse to even entertain the possibility of using therapy dogs, fearing the introduction of disease. In addition, in the Amazon, persons with disabilities are largely left to their own devices - the social services we take for granted in the United States are simply not present. It is felt that nothing will improve the disable person's life or ability to care for him or herself, so why bother - the motto seems to be the same as late-night rotisserie infomercials: "set it and forget it."

Rejected by hospitals, we approached and began working with individual families. One of our first candidates for therapy dog placement was a largely unresponsive developmentally delayed boy who was confined to a wheelchair. Our informally trained therapy dog was very gentle with the child, and after only a few visits the boy would smile and laugh when the dog visited, interacting with the dog and even throwing a ball for him to fetch!

Galvanized by our success, we persisted in soliciting schools and hospitals, eventually succeeding in instituting a program with an Iquitos school for deaf and mute children. The joy the therapy dogs have brought to these children is beyond measure, and it is among the most rewarding accomplishments of Amazon CARES to date.

Efata School for the Deaf in Iquitos, Peru
In the United States, it costs $40,000 and takes two years to train a guide dog. The dogs we are utilizing for our current therapy dog program are informally trained, so are limited in their abilities. One of our fondest wishes is to bring an experienced guide dog trainer to Iquitos to educate our staff, allowing us to begin our own guide dog training program with the same rigorous standards employed in the States.

At the moment, though, this is on our list of dreams we'd love to achieve, but as we see the groups of dogs scrounging through piles of garbage at the market, or scratching idly at mange on the side of the road, or giving birth to puppies that will almost certainly perish from starvation, we have to admit that we lack the resources to start a full-fledged guide dog training program. As is often the case in Iquitos, we do the best we can with the what we have, and for now that is providing a friendly, eager to please, casually trained dog to bring joy to the lives of children who have little to smile about. While it is not perfect, we are able to take comfort and satisfaction from what we are able to achieve, yet never stop striving to do more: it's the Amazon CARES way.

We learned of National Guide Dog Month through  We are currently having a giveaway of their premium pet food.  The giveaway ends Monday, September 12.  See details here!

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