What follows is the first in a series of my thoughts and memories of going through guide dog school for the first time. Having never been a dog owner, this experience was not only unique, it was intimidating, but, looking back, it was the best decision I ever made.
Getting a guide dog is not an overnight process. It takes about a year. First there is the application, and submission of letters from your doctor. Then there is an in-home interview where trainers from the guide dog school come out and meet with you. This consists of an in person interview, making sure the home is a good environment for a dog, and an analysis of how mobile you are.
After all of this has taken place, there is a waiting period when your case goes before a review board. Once you have been approved, you are given a date to head off to guide dog school. You have to live at the school for a month of training. Unfortunately, it’s not like summer camp, it’s more like boot camp. Your days start at 6 a.m. and you train six days a week. The school provides room and board. The school that I went to, Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, is a not-for-profit organization. They are completely publicly funded, so all of these services were provided to me at no cost.
The first day at guide dog school
The first day at guide dog school is a lot like the first day of college. You get to the school, you head off to your dormitory room, unpack and get settled, then head off to meet your fellow classmates. Oh yeah and just like college’s “freshman fifteen” there is a lot of eating. You are provided with three meals a day, and will probably eat more than you ever do at home.
My class had fourteen students, a mixture of those who had guide dogs previously, and some like me who were first-timers. Even though the school was in New York, I was the only New Yorker in the class. The class was made up of people of all races, religions, and backgrounds. The one thing we all had in common was we are blind.
The first day of training at guide dog school is all about the trainers learning your walking speed and about your lifestyle. There is no dog, since the trainers need to determine which dog is best for you. Guiding Eyes for the Blind uses mostly Labradors due to their temperament and trainability. Wow, I hope I can get a dog that loves to sleep in, loves the Yankees and Gators, and can run to Ray’s Pizza to pick me up a slice.
Learning about obedience training
The second day started out with obedience training and learning how to discipline the dog, and the trainers first start introducing you to the verbal commands and hand signals you will use to communicate with the dog. We still weren’t training with our dogs, rather the harnesses and leashes were attached to our trainer’s arm.
We were taught two obedience commands. The first is a right arm pull on the leash to tell our dogs to stop sniffing, stop window shopping and focus, and to generally just get the dog back on track. The second is a left hand leash pull, which would be used to correct our dogs’ more serious mistakes, like walking us into something, blowing past a curb, or just an overall lack of focus.
I wasn’t that great at the left arm correction, as I guess I was a little apprehensive to be pulling on the dog’s neck. Like I said, I never had a dog before, and didn’t realize that a dog’s neck is the strongest part of his body.
Meeting the guide dog trainers
We were then off to the metropolis of White Plains, New York, where Guiding Eyes has a facility at which we would do most of our training. I guess the good people of White Plains are nicer to train around than the people of New York City.
We walked around with our trainers having the dog’s harness and leash attached to their arm. We were learning basic hand signals to tell our dogs to move forward, go right, and go left. Of course some idiot yelled out, “You forgot the dog!” I guess he must have been from New York City.
At this point, tomorrow afternoon will be the big day, when we will be introduced to our dogs for the first time. It should be a really interesting and exciting day, and at least we won’t have to pick up their poop for the first few days. That is one lesson I am not looking forward to learning!