I thought for my second post, in honor of National Service Dog month, I focus on what it is like to go to the school and get a new guide dog. Because the working time of a guide dogs is seven years on average, most guide dog users have several guide dogs in their life time. Each dog is different and the transition from a seasoned dog who knows just what you want to a young inexperienced dog is exciting but challenging too. It is also heart wrenching when I dog must be retired whether it is due to old age, health issues or behavior problems. It some ways the first time is the easiest because it is simpler but it also has the challenges of being a whole new experience.
There is an extensive application process and then once accepted the guide dog user has to wait for an available class date. For some handlers with special needs the wait is more for the right dog to be found and trained than an available spot in a training class. There are about a dozen guide dogs schools in the United States. Because I’m a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, I don’t know much about how the other schools work but I think they are similar in many ways.
Guide Dogs for the Blind has two and three-week classes. Interesting to note that they are phasing out the three-week classes. It is an intense training with a very low instructor to student ratio. This makes it possible to be flexible in fitting the needs of each team. Dog day is probably the most exciting day of training, where the handler finally gets to meet the dog that has been carefully picked to fit their needs and desires. Soon after they take their first walk together. Over the course of the class there are many ups and downs. The handlers have to learn/relearn the skills of handling their dog and his/her challenges. Here are two blogs from a recent three-week class at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. It is a really good way to get a glimpse of what it is like to train with a new guide dog. It takes a lot of discipline to faithfully journal the daily experiences of training with a guide dog.
At the end of training is a formal graduation ceremony. This is when the puppy raisers and the handler meet. It is an exciting an emotional time. After the ceremony the guide dog user is then cleared to go out on their own without an instructor. But the training isn’t really finished. It typically takes 6 months to a year for a new guide dog team to be working smoothly and consistently together. When the two of them come together as a team it is an amazing relationship that both enjoy and the bond between the person and the dog is incredible.