Instructor Dave Ponce introduces graduating class #373.
With graduation season fast approaching, Guide Dogs of America kicked things off on Sunday with the formal graduation of Class 373.

Eleven of the 12 teams (one was unable to attend and was represented by a family member) took to the stage, confidently ascending the stairs and finding a seat with the assistance of their newly partnered guide dogs.

Each graduate was joined by the volunteer who raised their individual dog. Most of the dogs visibly remembered their puppy raisers, whom they hadn’t seen for six months, and burst into a fit of tail-wagging excitement. It was no doubt a bittersweet moment for the raisers, who had to refrain from reciprocating and remember the dogs are working and aren’t to be social with others when in-harness.

Tears of happiness were shed by many as the graduates and puppy raisers spoke. Class spokesperson Mark Davis of South Carolina, opened remarks with an impassioned thank you delivered in a soft-spoken, southern drawl.

“It means so much to be able to go down the road with the help of a dog and not have to hold onto a person,” he said. “When we first came here, we weren’t broken, but we were splintered, and now… A lot of people would have put us on the back shelf, but y’all didn’t.”

Fellow graduates’ comments were equally moving.

“I’ll be able to take my children to the park.”

“The gift you’ve given me and my family cannot be explained.”

“I can’t wait to go home and show (my dog) my life.”

And my favorite, when graduate Ari Hughes, a young man with myriad tattoos and gauge earrings, tearfully announced toward the crowd, “You can cry now, mom.  We did it!”

Students will remain on-campus for one more week of training in order to fine-tune any issues specific to their individual lifestyles.

The next incoming group of students will graduate on July 8.

Photo by Stephanie Colman
Friday the 13th ended on an inspirational note for members of Valley Hills Obedience Club, as they listened to Guide Dogs of America’s Lorri Bernson recount the experience of losing her vision and gaining a guide dog.

With Guide Dog Carter at her side, Bernson spoke to the nearly 40 club members in attendance for more than an hour, providing an overview of the school and an honest account of her personal journey from sighted to blind and from cane-user to guide dog graduate.

Bernson, 49, lost her vision quite suddenly to diabetes when she was just 33 years old. She describes herself as a “very independent person,” and said the loss of independence was the hardest part of losing her eyesight.  

One especially impactful comment was how, out in public, strangers often hesitate to talk to a blind person because of the lack of opportunity for eye contact, and when they aren’t sure what to say, they don’t say anything.

“I was saddened to hear how lonely she felt in a crowd of sighted people unwilling to speak to her out of fear they might offend,” said Sue Blackburn of Westlake Village. But then I was so happy to learn that, beside the obvious aid provided by the dog, the dog also opens up opportunities for sighted people to interact with her.”

Other members were touched by hearing Bernson describe the relationship she shares with her current dog, Carter, and first guide dog, Nigel.

“My favorite comment was how she didn't want a dog at first because she was worried about how hard it will be when the dog passes away,” said Elisa Becker of Malibu. “It was nice to see and hear about the connection Lorri has with her dogs. They don't just work for her – they are her cherished pets, too.”

Note: A detail I found especially uplifting, was how Bernson negotiated an opportunity to throw the first pitch at a Dodger game in August 2011. I love her go-getter attitude!

Diane Victor of La Verne, Calif., is one of roughly 300 families who make up Guide Dogs of America’s team of volunteer puppy raisers. She’s currently raising her first guide dog puppy, Flora, a 12-month-old Labrador Retriever.

Years ago, she attended an open house at the Sylmar, Calif., campus, never expecting she’d one day become part of the volunteer family herself. Much like fellow volunteer Glyn Judson, Victor turned to puppy raising to help heal her broken heart after making the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her own canine companion of 17 years.

“My heart was broken and I wasn’t ready to have another dog and have to make those terrible decisions at the end of its life,” Victor said. “I thought, ‘What better thing could I ever do than raise a puppy for GDA?’ ”

Victor says she’s learned a lot in her 10 months with Flora.

“Raising a guide dog puppy benefits you in how you treat other people and in how you treat other dogs,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything more worthwhile. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true. You get a wonderful dog and the support of the organization.”

More than anything, Victor says raising a puppy reminds her to be thankful for her own good health.

“Boy does it remind me of my blessings,” she said. “How fortunate I am to have my mental, physical and emotional well-being. There are people not nearly as fortunate as I am, so why not do something to make such a positive difference in someone else's life?

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.

"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.

Photo courtesy of riekhavoc/Flickr.com
While guide dogs, like those trained at Guide Dogs of America, provide an invaluable service to their human companions, the ability of dogs to assist humans goes far beyond that of working with visually impaired people.

Dogs can be trained to provide a wide variety of life-enhancing, and sometimes, life-saving skills.    

A service dog, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”  Common service dog tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items for those with mobility issues, alerting a person having seizure, or providing psychiatric support for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The benefits of service dogs have been well documented via scientific research. A study published in the September 2011 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (say that three times, fast!), found a significant decrease in morning cortisol levels of children with autism spectrum disorders when paired with a service dog. Similarly, a Journal of the American Medical Association study measuring the value of service dogs for people with ambulatory disabilities found that participants "showed substantial improvements in self-esteem, internal locus of control, and psychological well-being within six months after receiving their service dog."

Most recently, psychiatric assistance dogs have been getting attention as soldiers return from Iraq not only with physical disabilities but, often, battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Organizations like Patriot Paws in Rockwall, Tx., and Veterans Moving Forward in Catharpin, Va., raise, train and provide dogs to veterans at no cost. In addition to traditional mobility-related tasks, the dogs are trained to help recognize and avert post-traumatic stress disorder episodes. According to Patriot Paws trainer Bonnie Hoard, the demand is so great that there is a current shortage of service dogs trained specifically for veterans.

Therapy dogs also provide a wonderful service to the community, but work in a volunteer capacity and are not considered service dogs, nor afforded special access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Delta Society, an organization that registers and insures volunteer therapy dog teams, therapy dogs and their handlers “are trained to provide specific human populations with appropriate contact with animals.” Therapy dogs are generally the personal pets of volunteer handlers, and training is limited to that which helps the dog behave appropriately while out in public amid various distractions and when interacting with a wide variety of people. 

Therapy dog teams visit hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities where residents and patients might enjoy interacting with an animal. As a former therapy dog team in partnership with my Whippet, Zoie, I can personally attest to a dog's ability to brighten a patient or resident’s day.

Regardless of the task performed, it's easy to see why, for many people, dogs really are man's best friend.

Photo by Stephanie Colman
Feb. 4 was an afternoon of hugs, tears and final words of wisdom as the adoptive parents of 36 future guide dog hopefuls delivered their four-legged “children” to the Guide Dogs of America (GDA) campus in Sylmar, Calif., for formal training.

To ease the sting of saying “goodbye and good luck” to a cherished family member, the organization hosted a special luncheon to honor those who have spent the past 18 months raising and caring for dogs with big future career plans. 

“You can call anytime to check on your dog,” said Louise Henderson, manager of GDA’s puppy department. She’s hosted dozens these events and understands the sea of emotion her audience is experiencing. “This day is harder on you than it is on them,” she added, hoping to ease their minds and hearts as they prepared to walk their dogs to the nearby kennel facility.

Puppy raisers play a critical role in the development of a guide dog.  Volunteers are entrusted with a bundle of puppy love when the pups are just 8-weeks-old. A puppy raiser’s job is to teach basic obedience and, more importantly, provide extensive socialization by exposing the pup to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, surfaces, people, places and things. Guide dogs, and pups in training, are afforded special privileges under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows puppy raisers to legally bring their trainees into any public place or on public transportation, so long as the puppy or dog does not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Much like waving a child off to college, what happens now is entirely up to the individual dogs. Many will thrive in formal training where they learn, among other things, training cues for forward, right and left turns, stopping at curbs and how to safely help their person cross the street. The dogs are also evaluated for temperament and personality, which helps trainers eventually pair dogs with the best-matched visually-impaired handlers. Training is not taken lightly.  It’s a detailed process that lasts six months; after all, dogs who graduate will have handlers’ lives in their paws.

Not every dog will make the cut. Those who don’t make the grade are evaluated for other jobs such as search and rescue or detection work for law enforcement. If the dog is ultimately tagged for early retirement, his puppy raiser is offered first right of refusal on adoption.

As the raisers head home from GDA, dog-less leash in-hand, the dogs get to know their kennelmates in a ritualistic greeting pattern of butt sniffs and playful body slams.

Not exactly Ivy League material, but these pups are in for a life-changing education nonetheless.