April 28th is International Guide Dog Day, but for the thousands of guide dog users in the world who are blind or low vision, having a guide dog by their side is a year-round lifestyle.
At Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), we believe there is a little bit of magic involved in creating the perfect guide dog team, but using a guide dog also has a long list of tangible benefits. A guide dog is so much more than a mobility tool for someone with low vision. A guide dog is a:
- Passport to seamless travel
- Social bridge to greater inclusion in society
Guide dogs enhance independence because of these key traits, but when you add that magic of a human/dog bond, it can transform a person’s life. Our graduates have said things like, “My dog is my soul mate and my superhero,” and “I now feel safe, accepted, and included in everyday life because of my guide dog.”
“My dog is my soul mate and my superhero”
GETTING A GUIDE DOG
People who are newly blind often want to explore getting a guide dog to help them navigate what can be a challenging new chapter. Yet, most people who are newly blind may not know how to go about applying for and getting a guide dog.
GDB is the largest guide dog school in North America, and for us, the first step is to determine if prospects are a fit for the guide dog lifestyle. Clients must have the emotional and physical bandwidth to care for a dog in order to keep them safe and healthy.
Clients should also travel regular, purposeful routes for work, school, errands, or exercise. In addition, clients must be confident in their orientation and mobility (O&M) skills, which means they are able to hold a fairly straight line while walking, keep track of where they are on a route, and use traffic sounds to determine when to cross a street.
The admissions process at GDB begins by completing an application, followed by an initial phone interview. We then arrange in-person home visits with potential candidates to help us get to know the applicant and assess:
- Home environment
- Neighborhood and local travel conditions (sidewalks, crosswalks, streets, etc.)
- Other medical conditions that may affect the use of a guide dog
Over the years, we’ve discovered that nearly 40 percent of people who want a guide dog lack the orientation and mobility skills to qualify for our program, and many government-funded programs do not have the resources to help those in need.
GDB created an Orientation and Mobility Immersion Program to address this critical gap, so more people can acquire the skills they need to live their best lives. This training helps get people guide-dog ready by developing the non-tactile travel skills that are most relevant to working with a guide dog, such as recognizing environmental cues like sounds, scents, and landmarks to keep track of their location.
Once applicants are admitted to our guide dog training program, they travel to one of our campuses in either California or Oregon to receive two weeks of formal, in-residence training with their new guide dogs. GDB provides its guide dogs and services free of charge, and our post-graduate support is exceptional. We offer a dedicated support center, in-person visits, and financial assistance for veterinary care as needed for the dog throughout its life, which is an important factor for many clients. In addition, we are the only guide dog school in North America with an alumni association that helps members develop strong bonds of community and connection by offering opportunities for mentoring, networking, and advocacy.
“I now feel safe, accepted, and included in everyday life because of my guide dog.”
TRAINING A GUIDE DOG
On the other end of the harness, our guide dog training program is unparalleled. From breeding to veterinary care and everything in between, each of our dog-related programs is led by the expertise of our staff and supported by volunteers.
Our volunteer puppy raisers are responsible for teaching guide dog puppies good manners and providing socialization experiences during the first 15 months of their lives. These experiences help puppies become comfortable going to restaurants and grocery stores, riding on public transportation, and walking on busy streets or other places where a person with a guide dog might go throughout the day. Once the grown dogs return to our campus, they are trained by professional instructors to safely guide a person who is blind or has low vision through the complexities of pedestrian travel.
Eric Metzler, speaks about his experience in the program.
credit: Guide Dogs for the Blind
Resources for people who are blind are scarce, and programs for the Blind or low vision community are being diminished, especially for older adults. And the incidence of blindness is expected to rise. It is estimated that each year, more than 75,000 people will become blind or develop low vision. Demand for our services is only going to continue to grow.
At GDB, we believe all people should be able to live the lives they want to live. We not only improve mobility for our clients, but we also expand inclusion and advocate for policy reforms that change how the world views blindness.
Since GDB receives no government funding, we rely entirely on private donations. We hope International Guide Dog Day will make more people aware of our life-changing mission of providing highly qualified guide dogs free of charge to empower individuals who are blind or those with low vision. More importantly, we hope they remember it the other 364 days.
To learn more about the Guide Dogs for the Blind, please visit guidedogs.com.
Karen Woon is Vice President of Marketing for Guide Dogs for the Blind.