Four legs give
Editor’s Note: This is part one in a weekly, three-part series on service dog.
For many people who are blind, their guide dog is more than just their eyes.
“When a person depends that much on a dog and a dog depends that much on them, I don’t think you can even describe it unless you’ve experienced it,” said Bryan Goings, a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. “You can really see how close they are. A lot of blind people describe them as their soulmates. My first dog, his handler says he’s his everything, from his ice breaker to his traveling compadre.”
But before guide dogs can put on their harness and act as the eyes for their owners, before they even are trained to become a guide dog, they are taught how to be good citizens by their puppy raisers.
Goings of Castle Rock, who graduated from Castle View High School this year, got involved with Sidekicks for Sight, the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy raising club in Littleton, during his freshman year of high school.
Since then, he has raised two dogs that have gone on to be paired with blind owners, and is currently raising his third — 13-month-old Armand. Sidekicks for Sight, the Littleton puppy-raising club for Guide Dogs for the Blind, is raising six puppies that could go on to become guide dogs one day.
“Basically we teach them basic obedience, good house behaviors and socialize them to the outside world,” said Barb O’Connor, a leader for Sidekicks for Sight who has raised 17 puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind herself. “As Guide Dogs says, `We’re not raising guide dogs, we’re raising puppies to be good citizens with the opportunity to become guide dogs.’”
When the puppies are eight to nine weeks old, they are transported via puppy truck from San Rafael to their raisers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah or Washington, where they will call home for the next year.
While with their raisers, the puppies do everything their raisers do.
“We’d go to school together and he’d just walk by my side, get socialized with everything,” Goings said. “There’s a lot in a high school, so it’s a really good place for him. There’s a lot of different distractions, but he learned to lay by my side and calm down when I’m in class, and then we’re up and off to the next class. Each day is really different. Just as you go to a different place every day, he does the same.”
Though Armand is in training while he’s in public with his vest on, he still gets to enjoy being a puppy.
“When he’s at home, he’s a puppy,” Goings said. “He can play with his toys, visit with us, whatever.”
During the year the puppies are with their raisers, they learn many basic obedience skills using a mix of praise and food rewards,
Among the things the puppies learn are how to walk on the left side of their handler, to not eat food off the ground, how to stay focused on their handler despite distractions, when it’s appropriate to relieve themselves (when the handler says “Do your business”) and the basics such as sit, stay, lay down and go to bed.
“I don’t feel as much that it’s breaking bad habits, since they come new not knowing anything, but more building up new habits, teaching them new behaviors and working on it really consistently,” Goings said. “You have to be on top of it. You have to be as consistent as possible so they learn what’s expected, and they’re more reliable. By that point, they enjoy it.”
When the puppies are between about 15 and 18 months old, they get back on the puppy truck and return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind
campus to receive complete physicals and get ready for their guide dog training.
If a dog doesn’t pass an aspect of their physical, due to bad hips or elbow dysplasia, for example, the raisers are given the option of adopting them as a pet.
If the dog passes its physical, it’s time to go to “puppy college.”
“Once they go in for training, they have eight phases they go through,” O’Connor said.
“Starting with the basics, they evaluate obedience skills and reinforce them and take them out to work with the harness. They start out in quieter places and take them to busier places where there is traffic and distractions.”
After they go through the eight stages, the puppies are ready to be paired with a person who is blind and they learn together how to be guide dog and how to have a guide dog.
“They keep working with them, honing their skills, and then they are looking for a partner,” O’Connor said.
“They take the application of a blind person and see if they want a quieter dog, or one that’s good in heavy traffic or good with little kids, and match up dogs with a blind person based on their preference. The person and the dog go into class and stay at the dorms. It’s a two-week class with an instructor there.”
The entire trip to the campuses in Oregon and California are free for the person who is blind training with their future guide dog.
“A really big thing they teach them, which I think is cool, is what is called intelligent disobedience,” Goings said.
“For example, if the person tells them to cross the street, but a car is coming or some danger like that, the dog will refuse to go because it knows that the person can’t see that and it knows something the blind person does not. I don’t know how they do it, but that’s really cool to me.”
If the puppy successfully completes all levels of training, he and his new owner participate in a graduation ceremony that the puppy raisers often attend.
“You get to see the dog again and meet the person,” O’Connor said. “It’s their decision to keep in touch, but almost everybody keeps in contact.”
Goings said he went to his first dog’s graduation and his new owner has become a very close friend.
About 60 percent of dogs raised by puppy raisers become guide dogs; other dogs may not be fit for that kind of work or have a health issue, but they can have a career change and become a therapy dog or another type of service dog, or become a really great pet, O’Connor said.
Goings said it can be tough giving up the puppies after bonding with them and raising them, but knowing the difference they’ll make in someone’s life makes it all worth it.
O’Connor likens it to a child getting married.
“It’s rewarding to see,” she said. “People say ‘How can you give them up?’ It’s like a child that got married. They’re with a new person in a new relationship that is fulfilling and loving for both parties. That’s how you do it. It’s not easy, but that’s a good analogy. You’re sending them off to be in a grown up relationship. You’re done with the puppy part and you’ve done the training part, now it’s up to the dog and the handler.”