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Guide Dogs For The Blind

This Week's Issue: Homer takes pride in the fact that he "rules the roost" in Faded Glory's dining room. Last week, he encountered his first Guide Dog ensconced in his kingdom, and here, he relates his experiences to us.

What's this? Another dog INSIDE the Inn? You can just imagine my shock and surprise at encountering a virtual "mirror image" of me in our dining room last Saturday morning! I have been admonished many times for lingering near the large dining table so, when I take a shortcut to the kitchen, I generally lope quickly through the dining room, showing as little interest as possible in the delicious bill of fare being served there.

Yes, my eyesight and my mind weren't failing me. I found myself looking at a large, young, healthy male yellow Labrador Retriever almost as handsome as I am. My yellow Lab counterpart was curled up under the table at the feet of his owner. Quite unlike me, he didn't seem interested in the delicious breakfast items in full array on the table above him. Actually, he seemed totally oblivious to the activity around him. It was then that I noticed the canvas vest (with it's integrated handle) that officially designated him as a Service Dog. No wonder he was comfortably ensconced under the Faded Glory Farm main dining table! He is used to privileges!

Although I have seen these service dogs before on television, I had never seen one up close and personal. I do know that for awhile Ray and Isabel had discussed putting me into the GDA program when I was scarcely one year old. That was back in the 1970s when Ray's sister-in-law was diagnosed with severe glaucoma. Based on remarks made about her general temperament (and temper) by Lamar, Ray's younger brother, Ray and Isabel decided to raise me up as a common farm dog. This was just fine with me. Isabel always said that I would have proven too stubborn and independent to have been accepted into the program in the first place. What does she know?!!

Later that Saturday afternoon, Isabel and Micah had a long conversation with the owners of the guide dog, Susan and Warren Cobden; and during that conversation, Susan introduced them to Herbie (her guide dog) and discussed the GDB (Guide Dogs for the Blind) program at great length. I sat nearby, next to Herbie, and soaked up as much information as possible. I never realized how much thought and planning goes into the selection and training of my brethren who handle these important responsibilities!

Susan Cobden lost her eyesight as a result of an automobile accident just after graduating from college. Now, at age 41, she is utilizing the services of her second guide dog, Herbie. I was surprised to learn that the majority of service dogs are limited to three basic breeds. Labrador Retrievers comprise 60-70 percent of all service dogs; Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and a smattering of other breeds make up the remaining 30 percent. Border Collies have been moving upward through the rankings of qualified service animals as the breed has recently gained popularity in the U.S., but many trainers believe that they lack the patience and calm temperament to become viable candidates. I was proud to hear that Yellow and Black Labs head the list among Labs, with chocolate Labs falling far behind. I really don't understand this, but it might have to do with the evolvement of the breed.

Just as homes are chosen on the basis of "location, location, location, service dogs are chosen primarily for temperament, temperament, temperament. Temperament is by far the most important criteria taken into consideration during the selection process. Secondary criteria governing the choice of dogs for service use are, intelligence, longevity, and size at maturity.

Guide dogs begin working at an average of 2 - 2.5 years old. Their average working life is 6-8 years, but this varies from dog to dog.

When a guide dog is retired, it is first offered to the disabled person to which he was originally assigned or members of that person's immediate family. Second refusal goes to the original breeder or donor of the dog. If a dog becomes available for general adoption in the GDA adoption program, there is a 4-6 year waiting-list of individuals desiring these retired animals.

Guide Dogs of America (GDA), one of America's largest providers of guide dogs, provides their future guide dog pups to foster care "puppy raisers" who will raise and socialize these dogs until the dogs are 18 months old and ready for formal training. Basic startup supplies (bowl, leash and five pounds of dog food) are provided up front by GDA, but all subsequent costs are borne by the foster care family on a tax-deductible basis. Any necessary veterinarian fees are, of course, covered by GDA. Detailed instructions for care and nurturing each dog are provided upon placement of the puppy with the puppy-raising family, and they must be strictly adhered to.

After 18 months, each dog will be returned to GDA for ongoing training and ultimate assignment to a qualified sight-challenged recipient. Susan Cobden mentioned that guide dogs must always adhere to a standard dog food diet and are never allowed scraps or 'people food.' No people food??? I visibly cringed when I heard those words! Makes me really appreciate Isabel and Louella. Thank you, Isabel; thank you, Louella!

After witnessing the interaction between Susan, Herbie, and Warren, it quickly became apparent to me that a guide dog's life is filled with love, respect, and tons of positive praise and rewards. Susan was quick to point out the fact that when Herbie's harness is on, Herbie is "all business." Herbie has been trained to ignore outside influences that might distract him from his tasks, such as loud noises, other dogs, foods, and even cats or other animals. Training is rigorous and there is a zero-tolerance policy for breaking of rules.

But, when the harness is off, Herbie is just like any other dog - even me! With that harness removed, he is ready to romp, play, chase a ball or frisbee, and gratefully accept scratching, patting and big ol' hugs and kisses. Some owners are careful not to let their dogs become too attached to other members of the owner's immediate family for fear that the other family member might become a distraction to the dog while on duty. These situations are deemed to be rare, and these decisions are left up to the discretion of the owner. Susan doesn't hesitate to let folks pet Herbie (if he's wearing his harness or not), and there were several occasions during their visit that I experienced some real pangs of jealousy. Am I insecure? You bet!

Outside of the GDA world, pairing of puppies with their new owners is not an exact science; and little planning goes into it. If you have the money, the breeder or pet shop has your dog. In the world of service animals, however, the proper matching of a trained service dog and his or her new human companion is very important. The 'chemistry' between the dog and its new owner involves matching personality characteristics such as aggressiveness, activity levels, and general temperaments.

Like any other first-time sight challenged person, Susan was required to attend a two week guide dog orientation held by GDA to match and train new owners to their new canine companions. At the conclusion of this two week session, both the guide dog and it's new owner have spent sufficient time to become familiar with each other and know the ins and outs of "working" together. A good service dog becomes an extension of his owner; his owner's eyes AND ears. At that orientation, if there are any compatibility problems standing in the way of a good "match," the problems have been recognized, and appropriate changes made.

In the field, each dog must depend on the good judgment of his master (or mistress) but decisions relating to curbs, moving traffic, railings and general safety belong to the guide dog. These dogs are even trained to refuse to obey their masters' commands if they sense impending danger yet (unseen) by their owners.

As I watched Susan talk and interact with Herbie during their visit, even I was able to see the strong bond of faith and trust between the two of them. Don't get me wrong, I really love my life of country-style luxury and dalliance, but when I watched Herbie confidently work his magic as a service dog, I found myself reflecting on what could have been.

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