A Lesson of Love

by Silvia Colombini, picture by Stefano Mazzali

Cavazza's young people visiting Scandini's National School for Guide Dogs to the Blind in order to learn and to understand, and get to know new friends.

There are places where it feels like home. It could be the story behind those places, the atmosphere, who lives there; breathing the land's perfumes you can experience intense emotions as well.
Scandini's National School for Guide Dogs to the Blind is such a place. Immersed out of time, mysteriously ingrained in our memory, full of surprise and adventure, it is our destination on this excursion. In the bus that brings us through the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, the atmosphere is already beginning to warm up: Cavazza's young people are singing and joking, and even Skipper and Viola, the two Labradors, seem to be smiling. For Viola, it is an important visit: she is born in Scandicci, there she learned a trade and is going back today not only for a visit, but also for an examination of her ability.

Picture of a statue dedicated to the guide dog

The school, in fact, always follows up on you even after you are assigned a dog, and the regular visits are useful to make sure that your dog can work yet better.
Founded in 1929, the Scandicci School, second in the world, still maintains today its leadership in efficiency, care and passion. Managed by the Italian Blind Union until 1975, it is today administered by the Tuscan Region which follows all stages of dog training until the dogs are allocated all over Italy, according to a tradition going back a long time ago. A blind person with a guide dog appears in fact in a graffiti of the Paleolithic era found inside a cave and in a fresco in a Roman villa in Pompei, preserved today in Naples' National Museum. Since then, the bond between man and dog has crossed the history of humanity between the freedom of friendship and the rigours of discipline, uniting breeds of animals and species of men all over the world with unaltered passion until today.
It is with this same passion that Corrado, the trainer accompanying us in our school visit, tells us what it means to train a dog. For a few years, we have been working with blood lines, this means with dogs born and selected by us in collaboration with the University of Pisa. We mainly work with Labradors, Golden Retrievers and only 10% of German Shepards.

Picture of a Labrador puppy

Although they are great dogs, the shepards have an irrepressible guarding instinct which can be difficult to control, while the Labradors and the Golden Retrievers are breeds that are at ease among people; they never attack, therefore they perform better as guide dogs.
Watching the Labrador puppies playing in the garden, chasing each other in a disorderly manner and running towards us as soon as we come close to them, it seems difficult to imagine that they conscientiously obey their master's commands. But, Corrado explains to us that they all respect the rules.
Today, at the end of the training only 8% of the dogs are rejected and that is because each puppy follows a precise course. From two to five months, a dog assimilates whatever experience without fear, that is why, when it is two months old, we entrust it to a family that has the duty to have it live normal experiences. The traffic, the city, people, that every day life that it could not learn about in school. The puppy stays with the family during one year, and once a month it goes back to school to make friends with the instructors and learn to know the environment. It is all instrumental to the fact that when it will be two years old, it will live easily with its new master without having previously gotten attached to someone else. The difficult work begins after the year it was entrusted to the family. Back to school, the dogs are trained in whatever situation.
In Florence, they begin the real dog guide school: subway, sidewalks, steps, narrow streets, stations, pedestrian walkways, intersections. Every action is tried, repeated and studied. Each dog learns how to do everything, the training consists in repeating the exercises and in providing positive reinforcement.

Picture of trainer Corrado and Cavazza's young people

Like human beings, dogs also tend to repeat whatever has deserved some gain.
In nature, no animal will waste energy to carry out activities that are useless and unfavourable.
The dog is corrected in a decisive manner, but it is not punished, and at the end of the two years, if it passes the final exam, it is assigned to someone.

This is the most beautiful day and, at the same time, the saddest. There are mixed emotions: for us, it is the last day that we spend with our puppies, but for the new masters, it is the beginning of a deep friendship. Here at school, we also try to create the best match, to join together the master and the dog which correspond the best in terms of technical, character and physical abilities.
And who does not pass the exam? What happens to rejected dogs? Corrado smiles.
They are nevertheless dogs full of good qualities, and we give them to whomever requests one of them, favouring social cases, disabled people, children with dawn syndrome, because a dog is always the best social mediator. It stimulates one to get out there, to make new friends, and it is an endless source of affection, warmth and comfort.
The school is to become in fact a polyfunctional centre for disability, where new methods and new teachings are experimented. Dogs can learn everything, even to turn off lights, and here they are tested to obey commands given at a distance with a methodology that in America has given excellent results. Cavazza's young people have thousands of questions and Corrado responds to each one of them with kindness and competence, preparing them to welcome their future friend. The school also has a residence where the master can stay when he is assigned a dog. Even we, humans, must learn the basic steps to obtain obedience from the dog and to move about with confidence, and it usually takes a week in school to learn the basics and to establish a good relationship. From what Corrado says, it all seems easy and simple. But when we go in the kennel to take pictures, we find eight uncontrollable puppies. Affectionate and vivacious, they run towards us and we understand the impressive work that will transform these Labradors and Golden Retrievers into disciplined and obedient companions. Incidentally, the bond between man and dog is based on instinct, heart and teachings, and where ends the school's discipline begins the unique and precious relationship which unites each dog with its master.

Picture of the school entrance in Scandicci

There begins a world made of caresses, sensitivity and words, where trust is the most important value, and where itineraries in the city intertwine with those of the soul, getting not only the man closer to the animal, but also the man closer to himself. After all, is that not what should be taught in school?