Eyes on four legs to walk the city streets

Guide dogs Unut  and Orwell meet again  with their new owners,  Toño and Tony.
Guide dogs Unut and Orwell meet again with their new owners, Toño and Tony. / Salvador Salas
  • Guide dogs for the blind. Two labradors, Orwell and Unut, have just met their new owners, Tony and Toño, and have already become their greatest help in living as normal a life as possible in Malaga

Orwell and Unut were at the ONCE Foundation's guide dog school together and when they met again in Malaga their joy was obvious: they couldn't contain their excitement and started to play, making their new owners, Tony and Toño, laugh. The two black labradors are about two years old and were brought only recently from Madrid to meet the humans with whom they will spend the rest of their lives.

Tony Romero, a 46-year-old musician and producer, worked for over ten years with Chambao as well as Jorge Pardo, Raimundo Amador and other stars. His latest work was producing Vanesa Martín's new record. He went blind when he was nine, due to a serious detached retina, and had suffered ocular problems since he was very small. He says that was when music came into his life, and he was already blind when he learned to play it.

Tony's guide dog is called Orwell and he is "beautiful and very good", although he was quite excitable during this interview because he had only been in his new home for a very short time and had just met his old friend from the dog school again. "He behaves very well when he's working," insists Tony. This isn't his first guide dog: that one was called Aifon, and he died in June from a sudden illness, aged only seven. Together they had travelled around Spain and cities such as Los Angeles, from one concert to another.

After losing Aifon, ONCE suggested that he get another dog and so he began the process of applying through its Malaga office again. "They look at whether you walk fast or slowly, my daily routines, whether I live in a town or the countryside, whether there are a lot of traffic lights or hardly any... and from those criteria they assign me a suitable dog," he explains. When a dog is delivered, the instructor, Pilar Legidos, spends a week monitoring how they get on. It will take a few months for them to become a perfect team. "He's very young, and he's a free spirit," says Tony, smiling.

Toño Rodríguez Novoa, 56, married and with two adult daughters, sells ONCE tickets in the La Paz district of Malaga. He was born in Galicia but has been in the city for 11 years, although he has never lost his accent. "But when I go to Galicia they say I sound Andalusian," he says. "Fate decides these things," he replies, when asked why he came to this area. "I had been to Malaga before and liked the climate and the people."

He lost his sight in a very serious motorbike accident in Galicia when he was 28. When he awoke after two months in a coma, he couldn't see. "I had to learn to come to terms with that and keep going somehow," he says, with the help of his family. "I didn't know how to eat, or move about. I had to learn everything, and now I'm very mobile, I get on planes and trains, I have a normal life. It's all a question of attitude," he explains.

The best news of the year

Unut is his first guide dog. "It's a fabulous feeling. Being able to leave my stick behind, being alone with the dog, in just three days it has given me incredible confidence. He has already learned what to do; now I have to learn what commands to give him," he says.

What made him request a guide dog? I thought about it for a while but in the end it was my wife, Ana, who convinced me. We applied four years ago, and he has just arrived. I didn't expect that to happen, with the Covid situation, and it was the best news of the year. It's made me really happy," he says.

Pilar Legidos is the Foundation's mobility instructor. The puppies all attend the school in Madrid, which is the only one in Spain. When they are two months old they live with voluntary instructors and their families, until they are a year old. Then they start training at the school. After about eight months they are ready for work.

The dogs are taught basic obedience with instructions such as sit, stay, lie down, come here... which their owners have to learn. Then they are taught how to avoid obstacles, to find pedestrian crossings, kerbs, gaps in the traffic. And maybe the most difficult of all, learning that they must come back to their owners after being let loose to run around.

"Once a dog is ready we look for an owner, because they have to be well matched," says Pilar. For example, Orwell and Unut are very different, because their owners' lives are as well. Tony is very active, continually travelling, and that requires a lively dog which adapts quickly. Toño's day-to-day life is much quieter, with a steady routine.

In September the ONCE Foundation's guide dog school was 30 years old, and during that time about 3,200 dogs have been trained there. There are currently more than 1,000 guide dogs working in Spain. Orwell and Unut are now the two latest ones in Malaga.