Guide Dogs for the Blind changes lives
One by one, the group converges in front of the Eugene Public Library . . . tails wagging, eyes bright, sniffing and stretching. Talking about dogs, of course, though their human companions are happy to see each other, too. The puppies, ranging in age from five months to more than a year old, are here to learn the important skills they’ll need when they embark on careers as guide dogs for visually-impaired people.
Sue Burgess is the leader of the Eugene Puppy Raiser Club that meets up every Monday evening. Her yellow Lab, five-month-old Yule, eyeballs a kid flying and jumping on a skateboard. Excusing herself from the group, Burgess approaches the skateboarder to ask if her dog can check him out. Permission granted, Yule gets to sniff and get to know the skateboard in a safe, non-confrontational manner. That’s the kind of educational opportunity — for both the dog and the skateboarder — this group constantly seeks. The more these dogs are safely exposed to now — crowds, buses, busy streets, Frisbees, squirrels, bouncing balls — the less they’ll get excited about when guiding their visually-impaired partners.
Today, Burgess, Marcia and 13-month-old Victoria, Pam and 10½-month-old Ion, and Louise with nine-month-old Florida, will ride the library elevator, ascend the large spiral staircase, walk through a nearby public bus station, and trek through bustling downtown blocks. “We just show them the world,” says Burgess. Each dog is wearing a green Guide Dogs vest that signifies they’re working.
As puppies, the dogs are transported by the national group Guide Dogs for the Blind up the 1-5 Corridor from San Rafael, CA, where they meet their trainers, such as these Eugene-area women. After about 18 months the dogs return to California or to a Boring, OR, campus for more specialized training and to spend one-on-one time with the person they’ll ultimately be partnered with. The trainers know it won’t be easy when the time comes for the dogs to leave. “It’s like your kids are going off to college,” says Louise, “except they don’t write home for money.”
It’s easy to joke, but the happiness of getting to know the dogs is tinged with sadness. These women don’t want to have to say goodbye to their dogs, but know they’re training them for a higher purpose. And, Louise says, when one dog graduates, every member of the puppy club goes along. “It helps you get through it without being too sad,” she says. “It’s a payoff for all your work, if you can call it that.”
If a dog has any sort of behavior problem that can’t be eliminated, such as timidity or being easily startled, he or she will not be matched with a blind partner. Some dogs end up in the Guide Dogs breeding program, others as companions of a different sort. Louise’s first dog, Slate, was taken out of training and paired with an autistic child. “The little boy came out of his shell,” she says. “Slate was his buddy. I think that’s a good reason to raise a puppy.”
Louise’s dog, Florida, has an aversion to walking over grates in the street, so when that obstacle appears, Louise first guides Florida around it, then gives her a treat and praise when she successfully walks over it. When out and about the group attracts lots of attention. Louise says they’ve even received donations on the spot when interacting with people about the pups. “Guide Dogs gets no federal money,” says Louse. “It’s all from private contributions.”
While the members of the puppy club do the basic socializing all puppies should be exposed to, as future guide dogs, the bar is quite a bit higher. The Guide Dog club provides an intensive manual for anyone interested in training a dog. All trainers use the same command words and cues, and the same food. By the time the dogs are done, their behavior is exemplary.
“We housebreak them, socialize, teach them basic obedience, show them morals in a gentle, easy way,” says Burgess. “We have a list of toys they can’t have: no balls, no Frisbees. We don’t teach them to retrieve because it’s not something you want them to do when outside with their partner. You want them to ignore that ball and ignore that Frisbee. It’s a big thing we’re asking these dogs to do, and it’s life or death for the people they’re with.”
Marcia got involved in training puppies in 2008 after attending the graduation ceremony of a dog that had completed its training and was going to live with its blind partner. “The first thing I noticed was that there were 12 dogs on stage and they didn’t care,” she recalls. “They were so well-behaved. It was so impressive, really an awesome sight.”
Marcia was so impressed by the gratitude of those receiving their canine partners she was moved to get involved. “It changes their life,” she says.
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Eugene Puppy Raisers Club