Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dogs That Guide the Blind

Last weekend I toured the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Here's the visitor center, which includes an auditorium where graduations (for people and dogs) are held. The first thing you notice is there are dogs everywhere. Here is a young yellow lab in training.
In the past, different breeds have been used in the program, including German Shepherds and even Poodles. Today, Guide Dogs for the Blind uses 80 percent labs, either black or yellow, with some Golden Retrievers or Lab/Golden crosses.

The graduation ceremony is very special. The dog has passed a special training program of several months, and the legally blind student has spent time living on campus in a dorm, getting acquainted with the dog, and learning how to care for and work with it as a partner in life. Here, on stage, the people who raised the dog as a pup have an opportunity to transfer it to its new owner. There is joy and pride and many tears all around.

Puppy raisers are a special breed themselves. Getting their new charges at 7-8 weeks, they lovingly raise them indoors, socializing them and getting them used to as many new situations as they can. At age 14-16 months, the dogs are returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind for advanced training. This entire program receives no government or federal subsidies, and is run solely on private donations with the help of many wonderful volunteers.

Here are some of kennels the dogs stay in while in training. Note the play equipment. Hey, even dogs need some time off. The lovely campus includes dorms for the recipients of the guide dogs, kitchens, a training area, and a state of the art veterinary hospital where the dogs receive the very best of care. They must learn to help a legally blind person negotiate city streets, getting on buses, going in and out of stores and climbing stairs and escalators, and even practice "intelligent disobedience" when they come upon a situation dangerous for their handler.

What? Why is there a cat on campus? Actually, there are two cats that live here. This one is Chester, and guess what his job is? Yes, of course, to acquaint the guide dogs with felines, which they certainly might encounter in their lives.

Not all dogs make it through the intense training. But these dogs are not called flunkies. Oh no. Here are a few dogs that didn't make it, and they are lovingly called "Career Changers." Some go on to become search and rescue dogs, or help people with autism or epilepsy. And some even retire as pets. Every single dog in the program is provided either a career or a loving home throughout its life.

There is a feeling of intense pride for those dogs that do make it through the rigorous training program and go on to become a Guide Dog for the Blind. This dog just graduated last Saturday, and went to live with his new owner. He almost looks as if he understands the enormous responsibility he's been given, doesn't he?

Here's the website for Guide Dogs for the Blind, if you'd like to know more:
Guide Dogs for the Blind has two campuses, in Oregon and in California. You can tour the campus and attend a graduation for free. (Click on the link above, and go to About, and then Campuses and Tours.) If you love animals, I highly recommend it.
Have you ever raised a guide dog pup? Think you could? What a wonderful gift to give someone.


Anonymous said...

WOW Thanks Linda for sharing this...I will be going to the Oregon School January 16, 2011, with a my graduation on the 29th. this was awesome to see and check out! I very much appreciate this post. takes the wonder out, one less thing to be doing as I am getting excited as each day comes closer in my journey to my new way of travel with a guide dog. Thanks again Kendra

Linda Benson said...

Kendra - Good luck on your training and getting your new dog! The facility seems absolutely top-notch, with great people, so I think you'll be well taken care of. The dorm is a beautiful place, and I hear the food is scrumptious - so take your appetite ;-) Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Hey! I think the guide dog in the graduation ceremony is Chili.

P.S. I am sure of that now, because I also recognize the Guide dog handler in the picture.

PPS - The Guide dog handler happens to be my wife.


Linda Benson said...

Gyan - thanks for commenting. I didn't identify anyone by name, because I was so entranced with taking pictures (and the whole ceremony) I wasn't positive on the identification. I believe there are three different, amazing dogs in the pictures (some of them are cropped from larger) and I think they are (from top to bottom) Chili, Panama, and Nels. Thanks so much for identifying your wonderful dog Chili, and that's also a great picture of the harness. Congratulations, and best of luck to all of you!

JR said...

Beautiful post and great photos, too!

Anonymous said...

I raised two puppies for this wonderful organization. My first career changed at 9 months and is now a therapy dog who goes and visits nursing homes. My second dog, Rica graduated in June. I love everything about this organization. The people who work on campus are amazing and I am in awe of how well trained the dogs are once they finish of formal training.
Kendra- Good luck with training. I know you will get a wonderful dog.

Vonna said...

I loved reading and rereading this post, Linda. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Linda -
You may be interested to know that Chili is well settled in his new home along with our retired Guide dog (his handler is doing fine too! *smile*)

I did send you a picture of him along with a yard sign "DC Needs More Chili" (Courtesy our local candidate for US Congress! - ). Hope you enjoy that.

Linda Benson said...

JR, 2nd Anonymous, and Vonna - Thanks for dropping by. I have always loved Labs because of their temperaments, and it was really neat taking pictures of so many cool dogs. And I am amazed by what a wonderful organization Guide Dogs for the Blind seems to be. It's not only the dogs, but a lot of loving people are involved in this program, and it does your heart good just to be around them.

Gyan - I didn't get your picture of Chili! but I'm glad he is fitting into your family so well.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful post, Linda. A friend of mine and his wife raise pups for The Seeing Eye, a similar organization in N.J. I love these organizations and the good that the doggies do.