One lazy summer afternoon relaxing in a lounge chair while vacationing on a lake, I said to my husband, “I think I need to get a guide dog.” I’m not quite sure why I had the sudden realization but it just seemed like time. I was becoming wary of stairs and tripping on curbs. Uneasiness about the inevitable decreasing vision and walking alone was creeping into my head.
I knew nothing about guide dogs except that they were trained to help people who were blind. Not knowing where to start, I called one blindness agency in Chicago to inquire. Luckily, they pointed me in the right direction and said, “You need to talk to Judi at the Guild.” Judi Jasek worked at the Guild for the Blind, which is now Second Sense. She had a big black Labrador Retriever guide dog named Ian. Judi took me under her wing and thoroughly educated me on what to expect and schools to consider. Judi, now passed away, was truly the mentor I needed.
After working with four different guide dogs for just shy of 20 years, I have learned many lessons along the way. I have had many different training experiences and have mentored many on their own path to get a guide dog. This is a big decision. Assuming you have thoroughly thought through the decision, the next step is choosing a guide dog school.
My first mistake was not to have the best orientation and mobility skills. 20 years ago, schools were not as strict as they are today about good cane skills. You must be able to travel independently for about a mile and be able to cross a traffic controlled intersection. A home visit by the school, or a video sent to them, will determine if your orientation and cane skills are adequate to work with a guide dog. One guide dog instructor once told me that if you didn’t have good O&M skills, all a guide dog would do is get you lost faster. A hard lesson learned!
Approximately 14 guide dog schools in the U.S. are accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation. This organization ensures guide dog schools are providing the best care and training for you and your guide dog. Their website makes it easy to find the listing of accredited schools and links to each school’s website. Whether you want to travel across country for your guide, or stick closer to home, this is a good place to start to learn about these different schools.
Each guide dog school has their own personality. I liken it to choosing a college. Some schools are a little more formal and others more laid back. Schools may offer training in your home area or only on their campuses. Here are some considerations and questions to ask when choosing your school.
From Oregon to Florida and Los Angeles to New York, you have quite a choice of where to train. Schools will provide your travel to school, room and board at no charge. Don’t let distance necessarily be a barrier in your decision. Choosing the school that feels right to you is the best choice.
Do you work in a busy downtown center with lots of traffic, noise and pedestrians? Are you living in a rural area without sidewalks? Perhaps you love to hike? The type of training you need will depend on the environment you live in and activities you like to do. For example, if you live and work in a busy urban center, you’ll want more training in that type of environment. Make sure to ask if they are able to provide enough training and replicate similar environmental settings.
Since my O&M skills were not the greatest when I trained with my first guide, the school offered me an afternoon of extra O&M. Today, guide dog schools are offering some immersive O&M programs to get you accustomed to traveling with a guide. Some of your orientation skills are more relevant to guide dog travel than others. The week long training programs focus on these specific skills. You’ll also have the opportunity to work a guide dog before stepping into a full-fledge guide dog program.
Most likely, you will initially train on the guide dog school’s campus. Your training may go perfectly, but when you get home, trouble may pop up. The guide dog school will provide phone support, but if the problem is not resolved, will the school send a trainer out to see the problem in your home environment? This is an important question to ask when interviewing your school. Problems with your guide that are not corrected early can become frustrating and a safety issue for both you and your guide.
Vets are expensive. Your guide will need annual checkups, vaccinations and medical treatments if they become ill. Some schools offer a steepen for veterinary expenses, so if finances are a concern, ask the school what support they can provide.
Puppy raisers play an integral part in your new guides initial socialization and basic dog obedience. They volunteer their time for many months and, of course, become attached to their puppy. Some guide dog schools offer you the opportunity to meet, and if wanted, develop a relationship with you. Other schools don’t offer this opportunity. It is up to you if you want to have contact with your puppy raiser.
In the past, German Shepherds were commonly used as guide dogs, but today most guide dog schools use Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and lab/golden mixes. Some schools will also train Poodles or Boxers, but this is somewhat rare. If you are interested in one breed over another, ask the school what breeds they work with. Be aware that if you request a different breed than what the school generally uses, wait times will be longer or they might not be able to accommodate your request at all.
Most schools, will at some point, offer you an opportunity to “own” your guide dog. Know that even if you don’t accept ownership of your guide, dogs are only taken from their handlers if it is not worked as it should or is being abused. These cases of the dog returning to the school are rare.
I would encourage anyone who is seriously considering getting a guide dog to apply to more than one school. You’ll discover each school’s personality and their responsiveness to your questions and concerns. Wait times may be a factor for you, and with the pandemic still playing havoc with these types of services, you may want to keep your options open. Finding other guide dog handlers and asking about their experiences at different guide dog schools can also be a helpful tool in making this important decision.
As always, Second Sense is ready to answer your questions about orientation and mobility and guide dogs. Just give us a call.
Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.
Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.