When Song Yanan was accepted as an intern trainer at Dalian Guide Dog Training Base two years ago, the laboratory animal science graduate from China Medical University had no idea what she was going to do.
"I used to live in the countryside and my family raises dogs, but I had no idea what a guide dog was until Professor Wang Jingyu took me to his center," Song told China Daily.
Guide dogs are trained to lead blind or visually impaired people around obstacles. Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds are usually chosen based on their intelligence and amiable nature.
The first guide dog training schools were established in Germany during World War I to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat.
To date, some 80 guide dog training schools have been established in 27 countries and over 20,000 guide dogs are in service now.
But as of autumn 2004, few Chinese had ever seen a guide dog despite there being some 12.33 million visually impaired people in the country.
Professor Wang, who earned his Ph.D in animal behavior at Japan's Hiroshima University, decided to foster the country's first batch.
"When I watched the 2004 Athens Games, I found many foreign athletes used guide dogs, so I thought that in 2008 our Chinese Paralympians should have their own canine assistants as well," said the founder of Dalian Guide Dog Training Base.
After two years, Wang successfully trained his first dog and the center was officially established on the campus of Dalian Medical University, where Wang has been working as the director of the laboratory animal science center since he returned to his motherland in 2001.
Now there are 13 trainers and 16 potential guide dogs, with another 56 puppies in foster families. Three qualified dogs have already been put to work.
"Our base is going to provide three to five guide dogs to Chinese Paralympic athletes this year," he said.
But his first trial failed due to a lack of experience. He bought six puppies at a local market, but after several months it was clear that none of them were up for the job.
"Some dogs died and some got pregnant. I wasted a lot of money at first," he said. "But I am quite proud of the fact that I took only two years to develop my own guide dog. It took Japan 18 years to produce its first one."
Wang and his trainers improved their knowledge and skills quickly by learning from their counterparts in other countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia.
"It is quite hard to find information about guide dogs in China, so I have to ask my friends in other countries to help me collect and translate the materials," he said.
"We also visited guide dog schools in other countries and invited foreign experts to run workshops here."
He said, it usually costs 10,000 yuan (US$13,500) to raise a guide dog in China, but because they are usually provided as a free service, the center cannot turn a profit.
Without any financial support, Wang, 43, has already put over 500,000 yuan of his own money into the school.
"I feel great financial pressure right now," he said. "I have put most of my life savings into this project."
The school, like its counterparts in other countries, has set up a website to spread knowledge of guide dogs as well as raise funds.
Thanks to the coverage of some local media, people in Dalian and the neighboring regions began to pay attention to the new phenomenon around them.
Some offer volunteer work at the base, some provide vehicles to take the dogs out for field training, and some donate money.
" I am very happy to see more and more people aware of the use of guide dogs, but public donations are very limited and I am trying to use several means to get more money."
In other countries, guide dog schools tend to be funded by the government, charity groups or big companies. But in China, none of the above applies.
"The biggest challenge for me now is to make the public understand why we are doing this. Most people in China, including the blind, still don't know why we spend so much money raising these dogs," he said.
"The introduction of guide dogs is a symbol of social and cultural development. As a developing country, we have a long way to go."