A conversation with Finn Elvi Kurri, a person who has been a foster mum to many pups,and later – future guide dogs for the blind.

I have arranged to meet Elvi at 8.00 am in one of Riga’s hotels. I wonder what Elvi Kurri will be like – pride of Finland, a woman who has offered a temporary home, as well as raised and taught an enormous number of dogs, which have subsequently become guide dogs for the blind. It comes as no surprise then that it didn’t take Elvi long to agree to help our organisation this summer by adopting another puppy to be reared. She understands that it’s difficult to find foster families in Latvia for prospective guide dogs, because over here it’s a new, virtually unheard of phenomenon.

Elvi with her new foster puppy

At the entrance, I’m welcomed by Elvi, who’s smiling and slightly nervous about our forthcoming conversation, but after a few minutes her concerns pass, the conversation flows smoothly and according to Elvi, she could talk until evening. Elvi has always loved animals. She wanted her own dog, but circumstances prevented her from buying one. Twice, she was forced to flee Karelia. Then she was busy all day at work. She worked in an office, selling paper, clothing and cheese. Recalling these memories, Elvi smiles, “Now I’m free and can do what I like.”

Elvi lives in Vanta, where there is a school that trains guide dogs. One day, she heard that foster families were being sought for prospective guide dogs. This was a great opportunity to fulfil her dream of having her own pet, albeit temporarily. Time passed, the dogs have come and gone; she’s looked after Labradors, Retrievers, German shepherds and even two Lapp Reindeer dogs. Elvi adds that the latter are very intelligent and good dogs, but after work they need their freedom, as a result of which, she’s sometimes found herself calling her neighbours to inquire whether anybody’s seen her pupil. When I ask her about her daily routine, Elvi breaks out into a smile; the dog dictates everything, he wakes her, first of all by slowly approaching her bed, then putting her nose to her cheek. Now, she knows it’s time to get up, so she opens the door and lets the dog out for a run. It sounds simple, but in reality, Elvi’s daily routine is quite demanding; every day she and her pupils go into town and goes everywhere she can with the dog, observing his positive and negative characteristics. Elvi says, “I live a dog’s life. I sense his desires, I see his every next step; bad things we forget immediately, I never punish him, but reward him for the good things he does.” Parting ways was hard to do only in the case of her first dog. Dogs of all age groups come to Elvi; the youngest was seven weeks old, but usually they are adult dogs who must learn how to spend time in the company of people and animals. They must be taught to be obedient, travel in a wide range of vehicles and learn lots of important skills. I ask whether she’s had any particular favourites among the dogs she’s looked after over the years. Elvi sadly replies – only one, the seventh, which was brought over from Germany, where it wasn’t suitable for police work, because it didn’t pass the tests, avoided men, as a result of which, the school’s staff sought a woman to take it in and raise it. Thus, this beautiful German shepherd ended up with Elvi. Elvi adds that they found one another, it was an ideal match, but 13 years have now passed since she buried her friend.Elvi2

Elvi not only raises dogs, she also acts as a guide­assistant for blind people, adding that she’s never found a place to learn to how to do this correctly, but has always learned by watching professionals at work. In Finland, hiking for visually impaired people is very popular. These hikes can last for one day or even several days, with overnight accommodation in tents. Elvi has also taken part in such hikes. Laughing, she adds that over the course of many years, she’s met so many people that it’s nigh on impossible to remember them all. So instead she asks, “When did we last meet?” During the course of a conversation, this is a great way of remembering who you’re talking In Finland, just like in Latvia, it’s very difficult to find foster families for dogs; people get used to a pet, fall in love with it and subsequently find it hard to part from it. Elvi stresses that currently very strict rules have been devised for foster families; they have to do everything by clockwork, but that despite this, she does things the way she’s always done them, over the course of many years.

For many years now, Elvi has fed her dogs with natural food only; she owns part of a lake, even though she does not fish herself, anglers bring her tiny fish that cannot be used for human consumption, which Elvi bakes in her bread oven, grates up, or gives to her dog whole. Nearby is a deer farm from which she buys meat for herself and her pet; dogs also enjoy eating omelette, but when it comes to oven baked foremilk, there’s always a squabble over who’ll get the lion’s share: Elvi or her pet.

When I ask her how many dogs she’s raised over the years, she shakes her head and tells me she doesn’t know, because she only started counting in the past decade, during which time there have been 30 of them. I feel a great deal of respect for this lady. Bidding farewell, I ask her how old she is: Elvi laughs mischievously, “25 x 3.5” she tells me. She’s 78 years old and still feels young, but when she turns 80, she’ll start thinking about no longer raising dogs.
Juha, Elvi, Ali and guide dog to be Olle waiting for Olle’s former foster family in Jugla and not awaiting them…

Our conversation is joined by Sirpa Tenhami. Sirpa has raised three guide dogs, adopting them when they were very young. She is also actively involved in the dog breeders’ society – part of a club that unites dog breeders. Sirpa proudly tells us how it makes money to fund its subsequent operations by making and printing bags and shirts. But it all started, because Sirpa’s daughter has problems seeing; 15 years ago, she bought a guide dog and Sirpa started walking alongside blind people and found herself trying to understand how to help these people by making their environment more accessible. Blind people are very independent and they can’t simply be taken by the hand and pulled; you have to have a special approach to discreetly show them the right direction. Ten years ago, Sirpa adopted her first dog with a view to raising it; it grew up to be a normal dog without any particular conditions. When it came to raising her next dog, they both learned restraint, which proved to be complicated and required a lot of work. Sirpa adds that she’s very proud of their accomplishments, of the help that a dog provides to a blind person, which makes up for all difficulties.

Representatives of the organisation with their Finnish friends

Ligita Damberga
August 2014

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