Sunday, January 22, 2012

Behind the Scenes Look at Guide Dogs

Many people assume the handler of a guide dog is blind. Some are visually impaired and have some vision. This is also true of white cane users. They are not all fully blind.

Some think when they see a guide dog, it's called a "Seeing Eye" dog or "Leader Dog" but that is only if the dog came from that guide dog school. Not all come from Seeing Eye or Leader. So, in general terms, it's "guide dog". When I first learned about guide dogs, I did the same thing. "Blind people get Seeing eye dogs." But really, it's "Blind/visually impaired people get guide dogs if they want to." It's a choice.

Many people may have seen a team, a guide dog and its master, working together, walking around town, through the mall, grocery stores, navigating the streets, and so on. Maybe you have seen a blind or visually impaired person crossing a street together. But have you thought about the steps that lead to this point?

As puppies, they are raised by “puppy walkers” or volunteers (even a young teenager can volunteer) for about a year. They are trained the basics.

There is a lot of commitment and time and love given to the puppy from the puppy walker and his/her family. The puppy is socialized (well behaved) and is exposed to many different situations so it is “tested” on its comfort level in all environments.

It must be confident in different modes of transportation (subways, trains, buses, vehicles, and including escalators and more.)

There are MANY volunteers who do this. They put in a lot of time to help these puppies be future guide dogs. They deserve a standing onovation because in the end, they know they are giving the dog back after all that hard work. That has to be the hardest part because you know they end up loving that dog, yet they know it’s for a good cause and that they are a part of that good cause.

After that, they are back with the trainers at a guide dog school. This may take about six months or so. The dog then gets more training. Once it completes this part of its training, it gets advanced training by a mobility teacher and is “matched” to the handler, a visually impaired or blind person who has applied for a guide dog. .

But some dogs don’t pass. What happens then? They may function in different way, like as dogs for the disabled or therapy dogs. If this is not possible, then the dog may be offered back to the puppy walker. Or, there is always a long waiting list of people who would love to adopt a dog from the school. Some schools had such a long waiting list that they don’t accept applications for adopting a retired dog.

Dogs can be retired for many reasons. Most guide dogs work for about 8 years. So by the time the handler gets the dog, it is already about 2 years old. I have known some handlers work with their guides till it is about 11 years old because it is healthy and able. Some dogs, due to unforeseen health issues, may have to be retired early. You just never know. I’m guessing on average, handlers may get successor dogs about every 8-10 years. Every dog the handler gets takes that extra time to learn to be a team and every dog is special in the handler’s heart.

The Matching Process

When a visually impaired/blind person applies for a dog, he/she has to have a physician fill out a health form, an ophthalmologist fill out an eye report, get character references, and validate his/her O&M (orientation and mobility) skills via video or have someone visit you at your home to observe your caning skills and see how you navigate and what your environment is like. What are your activities? Where do you go? What transportation do you use?

The guide dog school selects (matches) a dog (or two) that they think may work (match) with the handler and his or her lifestyle, habits, activities, family life, whether they have other pets, and so on. They also look at the gait and speed and personality of the handler and match him or her with a dog that may be compatible. (Sometimes the dog just isn’t working well with the handler and they find another dog or use a back up dog or just don’t get one.) It is not statistically high, but it does happen, maybe one or two in every class of 10-15 students (handlers). I’m guessing this, so maybe I’m wrong. I do know it does happen,

So next time you see a team (guide dog and handler) working together somewhere, think about the work that was put into it, from the puppy walkers, to the trainers, to the mobility instructor and the on-going working team.