In Celebration of Dogs & National Guide Dog Month, (September)
Dogs enhance our lives by imparting unconditional regard, affection, and loyalty. Guide and service dogs take these attributes and expand upon them, assisting us and stepping into a role even more profound than a pet. I have personally witnessed a dog redirect his handler during an anxiety attack, another steady her handler as she struggled to stand up and transfer from a wheelchair to a stationary chair. My own dog has blocked us from oncoming cars, other obstacles, and unerringly finds what I seek on command.
Then there is the work that goes into a guide dog. From the time they are born, training programs are evaluating and preparing these dogs. Experienced socializers watch puppy play, provide testing with touch, sounds, and other stimuli to determine a dog’s nature and character. Some pups are passed over, many are given the green light and proceed to the next step and are raised by volunteers until they are 16 months old. Then there is more evaluating, training, and a matching process.
But before the match, there is also so much more that is happening at the human end of this endeavor. I will try to explain it. Training programs require an application, for first timers and those returning for a successor dog. A medical and orientation and mobility form must be submitted, plus other release forms. There is a home visit, maybe some video taping, and practice walks, called juno walks, wherein the instructor holds the harness and mimics the dog while you follow and give commands, execute turns, and street crossings. They look for pace, pull preferences, and other habits. They also get an idea of what you will require of a dog in your home environment in terms of guide work.
In class training is 3 weeks. Condensed classes are offered for those returning for successor dogs. A typical day begins at 6 a.m., followed by relieving and feeding your dog. Next is obedience, breakfast, and preparing for traveling to the training routes and locations. Routes are done one-on-one, two times per day, with a lunch break in-between. After returning to the dorm, the dogs are fed again, relieved, and there is lecture and dinner, one more relieving break, then bed. This is more or less the routine for three weeks. Highlights are learning about the harness, leashes, collar and other equipment. We learn how to walk in both city and country environments, and so much more. My favorite part of all of this is getting to know my dog through the husbandry end of things. Brushing, feeding, playing, obedience, the bonding elements. Let’s not forget booties. If you want your dog to walk like a duck, resist you and suddenly forget commands, put on those booties.
When I first met Verona, my first dog, it was a very emotional experience. She was calm, quiet, and once she accepted me, became a very loving and excellent guide. When Bailey and I met, it was a bit more energetic. I remember saying, “Wow, he’s so much bigger,” and, “he’s intense,” The first night he barely settled down, walking, rubbing on me, whining at the door, and watching me. He is more distracted than Verona was at his age, too. Yet, for all their differences, they are both great guides and companions. I love how Bailey pulls into his harness, has confidence in crowds, and takes charge when I need him to do it. I love that he comes right to me when he sees his harness, remembers our routines, and settles in when we travel on the, big, rickety busses. I love his exuberance, his doggie smell, and his kisses. I love when Verona is so happy to see me that she hops like a rodeo horse and running in-between my legs, being very silly. It’s these things that melt my heart, soothe my soul and keep me thinking I am the luckiest person in the world.