A Canine Gap Year!?

Believe it or not – a dog can also take a gap year!

In the summer of 2020, I adopted Atlas, a sweet Labrador puppy, and we embarked on a year-long journey together. With the guidance and support of the Israel Guide Dog Center, Atlas was on the road to becoming a seeing-eye dog. Together we worked with a talented trainer, Naama Rolink, who helped us learn basic obedience and commands while navigating a variety of environments together.  Many everyday sights and sounds around us were initially obstacles for Atlas such as overcoming a fear of escalators, managing in dark places, encountering people he was familiar with as well as individuals new to him, and how to behave when surrounded by different types of distractions. As a guide dog, Atlas will go wherever his companion goes so one of the most important goals for us, which took up most of our day, was simply going to work each day.  With the help and patience of my colleagues and my students, Atlas learned to behave in the office during meetings, programs and even traveled with us on field trips around the country, not to mention the corona lockdowns and rockets sirens we experienced together. What a crazy year 2020-2021 was!

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In my role as Director of Programs of Aardvark Israel, I have seen firsthand the benefits of a gap year. Programs provide students with the opportunity to grow and develop in a totally different way than ever before in their lives – they must adjust to a new culture, language and community, and they are challenged to exit their comfort zone while exploring new things. On our program, students deepen their knowledge about Israel by visiting new places, meeting people from all over the world, navigating social dynamics, and learning to be independent for the first time. Atlas spent his year learning many of these same skills.

During our time together, Atlas and I discovered the varied faces of Israeli culture and society.  Like the metaphor of the sabra, Israelis are sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside – we experienced Israeli chutzpa and directness as well as sensitivity and kindness.  On one occasion after Atlas was bit by a random dog at the dog park, the dog owner’s response was merely, “relax, it can happen” as she continued sitting and chilling on a bench.  Another time, as we were walking on Rothschild Boulevard, a man looked me in the eyes and asked with a touch of sarcasm why I have a seeing-eye dog if I can see. With a laugh, I replied, “please check the vest again, it says ‘in training’.”

Practicing bus rides with friends (Photo Credit: Ayelet Nizri)

But we also had countless beautiful encounters with parents explaining to their children the importance of guide dogs and how to assist people with disabilities. A few times while boarding a bus on a hot, sunny day, seeing me in sunglasses with Atlas strangers expressed compassion and extended offers of help.  Managing a big dog on crowded public transportation could be a challenge, but some people got up and offered us their seats, gave us support walking through the aisle, and we were almost always greeted with smiles. Whenever I realized people thought I was blind, I took off my sunglasses and thanked them for their kindness, encouraging them to continue to be of support to others in the future.

Atlas and Shay-El (Photo Credit: Charlee Perton)

Last May, Atlas moved on to a new chapter of his training when he began his professional course at the dog center. Together with his trainer, Gal Ephrati, he worked on important additional skills necessary to become a certified seeing-eye dog.

Yesterday, Atlas graduated from the guide dog training program and started his new journey as a seeing-eye dog for Benny, a kind, sensitive and lovely person that he will accompany for the next 8 years. From now on, they will become one unit and will start their own journey. I’m thrilled to know Atlas is in good hands and vice versa. We are all proud of Atlas and wish him the best as he continues to do good in his life.  Atlas’ role in society is an expression of Tikkun Olam – making the world a better place.

Benny and Atlas (Photo Credit: Eli Ben-Boher, Israel Guide Dog Center)

The journey Atlas and I took together couldn’t have happened without the care and assistance of the Israel Guide Dog Center in Beit Oved, Israel.  The IGDC raises, trains, and provides guide dogs for people with blindness and visual impairment in Israel, giving them independence, mobility, and self-confidence. They also train service dogs for IDF veterans dealing with post-trauma (PTSD) and provide emotional support dogs for children on the autism spectrum. If you would like to support Atlas, his canine friends, and people with special needs, feel free to reach out – every shekel counts!

My friendship with Atlas flourished also with the support of Aardvark Israel, an organization offering gap year and study abroad programs to 17-21 year-old Jewish students from all over the world which is operated in partnership with Masa Israel Journey, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government of Israel.

During our time together, Atlas met hundreds of young adults from all over the world.  Some students helped with his training, while others enjoyed the emotional support a dog provide, particularly as we all dealt with the ups and downs of covid.  The support of my students and coworkers with raising Atlas gave all of us the opportunity to do something meaningful and good during the chaos and stress of corona. He reminded many of my students of their own dog waiting for them to complete their gap year, but he also was a living expression to them of Jewish values we hold dear – Tikkun Olam, VeAhavtah Lereacha Kamocha (To love your neighbor as yourself), and Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh (all of Israel is responsible for one another).

Saying goodbye to Atlas was not easy, but I am proud of his accomplishments throughout his gap year!

About the Author
Shay-El serves as Director of Programs for Aardvark Israel which offers a variety of gap year and study abroad programs to 17-21-year-old Jews from all over the world. He earned a BA in Leadership and Management of Educational Systems and Political Science from Bar Ilan University and an MA in Israel Studies, with a specialization in American Jewish Studies, from Haifa University.
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