I have had a remarkable experience this past year as I watch my friend Kathi raise a puppy for Guide Dogs of America (GDA). If you are anything like me, you may not have much knowledge or experience regarding how a puppy goes from a squirmy bundle of paws and jaws to a well-trained, confident guide dog.
I can recall watching the “V” litter on the GDA puppy cam before he was matched with Kathi. At 8 weeks one of the “V” boys joined their family and they selected his name, Vanko.
Here he is on his 2 month birthday. He’s a Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador cross.
I know many of you have dogs, have raised them from puppies or rescued them at various ages of their lives.
Guide Dogs of America started in 1948 and since then it has provided guide dogs at no cost to blind men and women. I will provide the link at the end of this blog so that you can learn all about this phenomenal organization.
My intent today is to tell you the story of Vanko and Kathi. So much goes into the training. The puppy, at 18 months, is turned back into the Guide Dogs of America for formal training that will teach them how to guide a blind person.
Everyone always asks or says, “How can you give up the puppy after you have been with them for over a year?” Or “I don’t know if I could do it.” I hear this frequently when we are out together. The answer is always steadfast, the goal is to raise the puppy; to teach him basic obedience and socialize him by introducing him to all kinds of experiences, people, places and modes of transportation. This training and socialization prepares him to move on to formal training. The ultimate goal is to provide mobility and a sense of freedom for a blind person.
I’ve learned new words…”get busy”…those are the words they are taught from the very beginning to “relieve” themselves. But, never when they are wearing their bright yellow training “vests”. A dog wearing a vest is working, period. When he becomes a guide dog, that vest becomes a harness; the training they’ve done “in vest” has already created the association between work and play…and when to get busy.
The same goes for “leave it”. These working dogs cannot decide to pick up a leaf, piece of food or anything on the ground, or chase after a ball, or squirrel or someone on a bike…you get the idea. When a guide dog is working he must be focused on the needs of his blind partner; so they are taught to ignore distractions and to “get busy” when the harness comes off.
I can’t tell you how often; Kathi has reached into Vanko’s mouth, to pull a twig, leaf, or whatever looks good to him. He has learned to “leave it” on command. But, it’s been a learning process for sure.
Consistency is at the backbone of training. It is a nonstop commitment. I so admire what Kathi and her family have done since the first time I met Vanko until now nearly a year later.
This past June, we took a field trip. He was still small enough to sit at my feet in the car.
He’s a people magnet wherever we go. He looks so big as he lies under the table for lunch. My apologies, I should have done a much better job of taking this picture, but who knew at the time, I’d be sharing these with you!!!
Both Vanko and Kathi are ambassadors. She lets the public know about the role of a GDA puppy in training. Many people use this opportunity to discuss this with their children when they speak to her.
Here is another learning lesson. You don’t just go up and start petting a dog wearing a vest; they’re working and should not be distracted. The first interaction with someone with a guide dog is to give the attention to the person and not the dog. Next, you can ask for permission to approach a service dog. Seems so obvious, but well meaning people, just don’t always know what is appropriate.
As he continues to grow, it’s time to be neutered. He looks pretty happy here, but that’s because he’s such a happy dog…
As you would imagine, these special dogs must be good natured and smart. It was no surprise that he would just let me take his mug shot!!
Just one month later and he is getting bigger and bigger! I’m shocked when a few weeks go by. He’s such a handsome dog with the best personality.
It has been such a pleasure to witness this transformation. All of this became very real as I attended my first graduation of class #382. I didn’t know what to expect.
I watched as many people arrived to celebrate the graduation of nine guide dog teams. Once the dog leaves his puppy raiser, they are not in contact until the day of graduation, some 6 months later. It really is like sending your child off to college.
For 28 days dog and student live in a dorm setting on the GDA campus. Here they learn how to work together as a team. I know that this is the goal Kathi and Vanko are striving to meet. Yes, it makes us both well up. There is so much pride and desires for success.
I’ve been advised to write like I talk, from my very well meaning friends. In this case, I need to stop now. I want you to take a moment and follow the link so that you can read for yourself what goes into raising a puppy for GDA.
I’ll keep you posted on his success!
This is their mission statement:
Guide Dogs of America provides guide dogs and instruction in their use, free of charge to blind and visually impaired men and women from the United States and Canada so that they may continue to pursue their goals with increased mobility and independence.