On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of 51 people and 26 dogs assembled at busy Union Station in downtown Los Angeles for a day-long socialization adventure designed to familiarize their Guide Dogs of America puppies-in-training with public transportation, while practicing obedience around real-world distractions.

The training event was organized by volunteer Glyn Judson of West Los Angeles.  Judson is currently training his eighth guide dog, Sal, a 17-month-old black Labrador Retriever. He turned to puppy raising after his beloved Doberman Pinscher died at 14.

“I told my wife I never wanted to make another one-way trip to the vet with a dying elderly dog in my arms … it was killing me,” Judson said.

Judson lost his pet on a Saturday, attended a graduation ceremony at Guide Dogs of America the next day, and within a few short weeks, began raising his first puppy.

So far, two of the dogs he has helped raise have gone on to graduate as working guide dogs. He’s hopeful Sal will be number three.

When it comes to puppy raising, people always ask how he can handle raising and bonding with a dog, knowing he’ll have to give it up. While the “goodbyes” are always bittersweet, Judson says he’s been prepared for the emotional moments from as far back as when he raised his very first GDA puppy.

“I don’t know what was going on in my brain before I ever did this, but I was absolutely prepared from day one, to raise my dog as best I could, with the desire to have her leave me so that she could go on to learn more and hopefully become the eyes of a visually impaired or blind person.”

He acknowledges it can be an emotionally tall order.

“It’s not to be taken lightly,” Judson said. “This isn’t about us. This is about a dog and someone we’ve never met before. That’s the one big component you have to remember … it isn’t about you.”

 
 
Sometimes being a dog trainer helps create a really neat experience. I recently had the opportunity to work, fully blindfolded, with three different trained guide dogs.  It’s something that has been on my “dog trainer’s bucket list,” for some time (along with donning the protective sleeve and taking a hit from a working police dog, which I did in 2011, thanks to the Glendale Police Department).

It was, in a word, amazing. 

The first thing I noticed is that we seemed to be travelling extremely fast. I was certain we were practically running, and I couldn’t help but think, “Gosh, blind people must be in extraordinarily good shape to keep up with their dogs!” Turns out, after watching myself on video, we weren’t really going that fast. It just felt like it with the blindfold on.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The real first thing I noticed is that it’s extremely difficult to walk in a straight line under blindfold. As soon as I announced I was ready to go, and issued the “forward” cue to my dog, I promptly took a giant step forward on the diagonal, right into a wall. D’oh!

My dog definitely had his work cut out for him.

When being led by a guide dog, the handler walks parallel to the dog’s hips. This allows for the front half of the dog to encounter natural deviations in height – like a curb or stairs – first. When such a deviation presents itself, the dog automatically stops. This lets the handler know to step forward, even with the dog’s shoulders, and explore the area with his foot to discover what’s there.

I spent about 30 minutes working with the dogs. I never really got good at it, but did have a few seconds here and there where I managed to move in a somewhat straight line while remaining in proper position relative to the dog.

With the dog on my left, if I started to drift to the right, I’d feel him pull, ever so slightly, to the left. If I drifted left, toward the dog, he’d counter-push to the right to keep us centered. The dogs are trained to slow down when going up and down hills, and one dog naturally slowed down when the terrain changed from pristine concrete to gravel. Pretty amazing.

All things considered, it was an amazing experience that, while brief, completely opened my eyes (no pun intended) to just how challenging it can be to navigate life as a blind person. It’s easy take for granted how much simpler things are when you have the gift of sight. 

More on that next week. In the meantime, check out this Santa Monica restaurant that features blindfolded dining in a pitch-black room, with meals served by blind wait staff. The “pitch” is that removing the visual stimuli associated with eating will heighten other senses and provide a truly unique culinary experience.

 
 
The general public holds a lot of misconceptions about working guide dogs. It’s easy to see a working team in action, the dog clearly focused on the enormous task of keeping his person safe, and wonder if the dogs are ever allowed to just be dogs.  

“When we’re at home, there’s no harness,” said Lorri Bernson, Guide Dogs of America’s community relations and media liaison – and program graduate. “That’s the dog’s time. It’s downtime for everybody. At home they’re pet dogs.”

According to Bernson, students are taught the importance of helping their dogs “shake off the day.” When a dog-and-handler team returns home, one of the first things on the agenda is a good play session.

“At the end of the day, we play, play, play. The dogs take off the business suit and play it out,” Bernson said. 

 Just not with balls. Balls are still off-limits for working guide dogs, especially guide dogs in-training.

“A ball is something a working dog might see on an average day,” explained Bernson. “If a dog is used to playing with a ball, it’s easier to get distracted because he’ll see the ball as a fun thing. We don’t want to tempt them with any more distractions than they already have.”

The same goes with people food. Introduce a dog to the flavors that abound on the human dinner plate, and you’re setting your dog up for a hugely unfair challenge.

“The dogs are trained to not start sniffing around in-harness, but once they’ve sampled human food, it’s much harder to ignore it. Then your restaurant days are over,” said Bernson.

 
 
Picture
"Talli." Photo courtesy of Sandy Steinblums.
“You cry a lot,” said volunteer puppy raiser Sandy Steinblums of Duarte, referring to the emotional highs and lows associated with fostering, raising and training a future guide dog hopeful.

One might expect tears when the pup has grown and it’s time to return to the Guide Dogs of America campus for formal training. And good luck finding a dry eye at graduation while watching newly paired teams successfully navigate the stage and begin a life together. But, says Steinblums, the unexpected waterworks comes upon learning a dog you’ve raised has been released from formal training.

“I think I cried for three days when I got the call about Sammie,” she said. “It’s sad when they get released from the program because we’re doing this to help somebody. People always ask, ‘How do you give them up’ and my answer is always, ‘It’s harder when you get the call they’re coming home.’”

Some dogs, like Sammie, are released for medical reasons.  Others are released because of fear issues or distractibility. Some just aren’t committed to the job.

“When Sammie came back, I wasn’t sure I was going to raise another puppy,” Steinblums said. Four months later, her latest puppy-in-training, Talli, joined the family. Talli is the fourth puppy Steinblums has raised.

“There is a certain amount of addiction to it.  I absolutely love puppy raising," she said.

For Steinblums, the joy of puppy raising comes not just from the sweet smell of puppy breath and the chance to help change the life of a visually impaired person, but also from the friendships she has formed with fellow puppy raisers.

“You meet the most amazing people. There’s something very different about people who are willing to do the guide dog puppy raising,” she explained. “I can almost guarantee that I’ll know many of the people I’ve met through GDA for the rest of my life… they’re that amazing.”

To learn more about volunteer puppy raising for Guide Dogs of America, click here.