Blind Faith | Following a Guide Dog on Duty in Vienna

People think that our dogs just follow orders. But really, it’s a cooperation – we tell them what we need, and they see how they can implement it.”

When dogs encounter each other on the street, there’s often a scuffle. Owners tug on leashes, by-standers are annoyed. But when an inquisitive pug barked at Ayhoka, she didn’t even flinch. Ayhoka is a guide dog. A large, eight-year-old, snow-white Berger Blanc Suisse, she is trained not to react to fellow dogs, pedestrians, loud noises, or any distractions that would keep her from doing her job, which is assisting her blind owner, Jürgen Bernold, from point A to point B.

On duty, Ayhoka must remain completely focused. “The right dogs are not so easy to find. You need a dog who’s calm, but not too calm, somewhere right in the middle,” said Bernold, 40, as Ayhoka deftly navigated him home through the after-work bustle of passing pedestrians and vehicles. Ayhoka, herself, was trained in Switzerland.

“Training schools travel far and wide in search of the right candidates.” In Austria, guide dogs are expensive, about €30,000, and support from the state is only granted to those with a full-time job, like Bernold, who works in the IT department of A1 Telekom Austria. This helps explain why there are only about 180 “assistant dogs” – the category defined by the state under which guide dogs fall – officially registered in Austria.

At home, Bernold removed Ayhoka’s harness and the shield identifying her as a guide dog. “Now she’s off duty,” Bernold said, as we were greeted by his five cats, all of which he knows by touch. Ayhoka relaxed by the aquarium, which is spotless – Bernold cleans and cares for it himself.

After several operations in early childhood, Bernold has been officially blind since age eight. His wife is partially blind. Their 11-year-old son has normal vision. When their son was born, Bernold and his wife were advised by a social worker to hire an assistant. But Ayhoka is the only “assistant” they need, he says. “We‘ve had no problem raising our son ourselves.” Bernold shrugged. “It’s a shame that people feel they have to judge right from the start.” But then again, they have probably never met a dog like Ayhoka.

Janima Nam
Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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