When Meicy Choi took her four-month-old Labrador retriever named Don Don out on a sunny Saturday in December, she did not expect to get into a row over going to the park with her canine buddy.
Don Don is not an ordinary dog. He is training to become one of fewer than 50 guide dogs in Hong Kong, and Choi is registered as a host to care for him.
But a staff member at Lai Chi Kok Park stopped her from entering the park and asked to check her documents.
“Even if you are blind, you can’t take the dog in!” the worker said.
A handful of onlookers, mostly middle-aged women, gathered and confronted Choi.
The commotion frightened Don Don, causing the dog to become uneasy, Choi said.
“You can’t be serious,” she recalled thinking to herself. Choi eventually backed down, not wanting to escalate the matter.
Such incidents reflect the daily challenges faced by guide dog trainers in the city. The issues are legal grey areas under current laws, which allow visually impaired people to use public facilities with their guide dogs, but not those who train the animals.
Hong Kong only started breeding guide dogs in 2011 because of a lack of professional trainers. The city’s guide dog community lags in scale compared with neighbouring Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, not to mention the United States or Germany, which were the first countries to train such dogs in the 1920s.
Raymond Cheung Wai-man, chairman of Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services and the first person to start a guide dog training institution in Hong Kong seven years ago, estimated the city would need 1,700 guide dogs, given its 170,000 visually impaired people.
“On top of taking visually impaired people around and preventing them walking into obstacles, guide dogs also help them lead freer, more confident and dignified lives,” Cheung said.
But outdated laws and insufficient public awareness remained the biggest obstacles to a bigger role for guide dogs in Hong Kong, according to Cheung.
“The government needs to change the current laws, which do not protect dogs under training,” Cheung said. “If a trainer takes a bus with a dog, there is a chance the driver may deny them entry. But if the dogs never get on buses during training, how can they learn to do this and help the visually impaired?”
According to the Disability Discrimination Ordinance and the Food Hygiene Code, visually impaired people can enter public places and food premises with their guide dogs. But such protection does not extend to trainers of the animals.
To familiarise guide dogs with the urban environment and prepare them to assist the blind, trainers need to take them around the city and “go everywhere”, Cheung said.
Cheung said public awareness had improved a lot from six years ago, when he had to fight just to allow guide dogs under training onto the MTR.
But misunderstandings still existed, Cheung said, as evident in another row at cha chaan teng Cross Cafe in Sai Ying Pun in December, which stirred up a heated online debate. The restaurant had refused to let in a trainer with a guide dog.
The restaurant apologised on its Facebook page eventually after coming under fire from netizens, and said they welcomed visually impaired customers with guide dogs.
A spokeswoman for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said guide dogs and dogs under training were allowed to enter all venues managed by it, including public parks. Referring to Choi’s encounter, she said: “But it’s possible some staff like security guards were unclear about the guidelines.”
Choi said she saw such incidents as “trials” for her relationship with Don Don. “I think 98 per cent of people are supportive of guide dogs,” she said.
Cindy Lee, a retiree who also fosters guide dogs, said she had many bad experiences when entering restaurants and taking minibuses four years ago. But things were “much smoother now”, Lee said, as people became familiar with the presence of these Labrador retrievers in bright red jackets.
“The government will continue to work with the rehabilitation organisations and stakeholders to facilitate the development of the guide dog service in Hong Kong,” a spokeswoman for the Labour and Welfare Bureau said.
There are now designated officers at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and Transport Department to handle complaints about guide dogs being denied access, the spokeswoman said.