Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Going to the Dogs...and Loving It!

The Vangaurds guest speakers today were from the Guide Dogs for the Blind training staff. guidedogs.com OR guidedogs.blogspot.com

Guide Dogs for the Blind was established in 1942 to help WW2 veterans, blinded in the war. At the centers in San Rafael and near Portland, OR., the dogs (German Shepards, Golden Retrievers and Laboradors) are bred and born and registered with the AKC. They have their own vet facilities.

At 8 to 10 weeks, the puppies are placed in volunteer homes to begin training the dogs in basic commands - sit, stay - and to socialize them by taking them to all the places people are found. They're taught to maintain a reliable bathroom schedule, walk calmly on a leash, lie quietly at their handler's side in public. The dogs also accept a 3X a day physical exam -- paws, pads and nails, ears with a grande finale massage! (The dogs usually go to sleep!)

At 15 months, the termporary owners return the dogs for formal training and then assignment to a blind person. Incidentally 20/200 vision is "legally blind."

The dogs learn to stop at curbs, steps, to steer owners around obstacles, to slow for tripping hazards and to ignore the distractions of other dogs, people and food.

When the future owners arrive, they work for three days with a human trainer and an empty dog harness ("Oh, look! An invisible dog!") Dog and owner are then matched as to (among other things) size, activity level, personalities of both. Dog and new owner remain on campus for an additional 25 days of training.

We were reminded of the four things a blind person can do: stay home forever; accept a human guide; use a cane or apply for a guide dog.

Melissa, who gradually grew blind, and her dog Anya were on hand and Melissa's stories brought both tears (of sympathy) and laughter - "So - am I getting a black dog or a blonde one -- to go with my outfit!" She told us that she had never enjoyed as much freedom -- "We need to go? We get on the bus, the train, the plane -- and we go!"

These dogs are working dogs -- do not run up to one screaming, "Oooh! Look at the doggy woggy!" and attempt to pet it. For one thing it is a felony charge in California (and most other states) to interfere with a guide dog. Leave the dog alone!

And while you do, consider this: a guide dog walked his blind owner down 78 floors to safety during 911.

Guide Dogs for the Blind does not receive government funding, do visit their Website to see if you'd like to make a donation to any of the programs they are currently running.

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