Guide Dogs for the Blind: The Alliance
by David Boyne
“We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance planet; and amid all the forms of life that surrounds us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.”
“When I walked with a cane, it was like I wasn’t even a person. Hispanic, white, it didn’t matter: people wouldn’t talk to me.” There is hurt and bewilderment in Guillermo Nevarez’s voice as he explains, “It was like they thought my blindness was a sickness and they might catch it.”
Resting alertly at Nevarez’s feet is Logan, a yellow Labrador retriever. “But with a guide dog,” Nevarez says, “People come close. They talk to the dog. They talk to me.”
Today, along with eight other teams, in an emotional ceremony reminiscent of a high school or college graduation, Nevarez and Logan are celebrating the completion of their training at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs For The Blind. Families from throughout the country have come to see the puppies they raised begin their careers as Guide Dogs, and to meet the people the dogs will assist.
It’s July 4th.
After one more round of hugs with each member of the family that raised Logan, Nevarez raises the handle of Logan’s leather harness. The dog comes to attention at his side.
Nevarez smiles. “It’s Independence Day, man.”
Founded in 1942 to serve blind World War Two veterans, more than 7,500 teams like Guillermo and Logan have graduated from Guide Dogs For The Blind. There is never a charge to the visually impaired people the school assists, and the organization is supported entirely by private donations.
“Volunteers,” Jane Grecco says. “We wouldn’t exist without them. That’s how we do it.”
This gracious, former business owner should know. After selling her company and doing a bit of traveling, Grecco was at loose ends. “I was visiting a friend in Connecticut. When she had to go to work, I had nothing to do. Knowing how I love animals, she told me about this guide dog school that gave tours.”
Grecco visited The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, a school begun in 1960 and based in Bloomfield, Connecticut. “I was amazed, intrigued. As soon as I came back to Oregon I got out the phone book and found Guide Dogs For The Blind. I just called and asked if I could help somehow.”
She began by doing office work, and soon was leading tours through the school’s new campus. Now Grecco works three days a week as the school’s Volunteer Coordinator. “Our volunteers do everything from bathing or walking or feeding dogs, to raising puppies or assisting our veterinarians, to typing letters and helping in the gift shop.”
What about that dog snoozing under Grecco’s desk?
“That’s Dora. She’s retired now, after ten years of guide dog work. I adopted her. Or she adopted me. I’m not sure which.”
The heart of the school’s volunteer effort is its puppy raisers. At any given time, the school has almost 1,000 foster families throughout the eight western states raising puppies to be trained for guide work. The puppy raisers will spend a year or so teaching their dogs good manners, socializing the dogs with people and children and other animals, and most importantly, introducing the dogs to a rich variety of public places and experiences.
“I get to take my dog to school!” Anna Sevold beams. A high school student from Washington, Sevold patiently makes Dapple, the precocious golden retriever puppy beside her, sit. “I take her everywhere. It’s fun. But it’s work, too. It’s important.”
The first two puppies Sevold raised did not complete the school’s rigorous training program. For any number of reasons, from being too timid or too aggressive, to developing minor but limiting health problems, many puppies being raised will not complete the program. The school arranged for both of Sevold’s puppies to be adopted by families as pets. “I’m going to college soon and won’t be able to raise another puppy. But I have a feeling about Dapple.” At the sound of its name, the puppy looks up at Sevold and yawns.
“Dapple’s a great dog,” Sevold says. “She’s going to go all the way.”
In recent years, the alliance between dogs and people needing their assistance has greatly expanded. Geoff Reynolds, a professor of political science, and his wife Sheila, are two of the more than 25,000 donors and volunteers who are the strength of Paws With A Cause, a national organization based in Michigan.
“I go to the local animal shelter and screen the dogs, looking for ones that have the unique intelligence and temperament to be trained as assistance dogs,” Geoff Reynolds explains. “It’s hard. So many of these dogs would be wonderful pets, but only a few have the right personality and temperament to be assistance dogs. Still, in the past two years or so, I’ve saved twelve dogs.”
The Reynolds specialize in training dogs for people in wheelchairs. Their dogs open doors, turn on lights, retrieve items from the ground or shelves, help people get up, and even pull the wheelchairs. “The dogs are happy when they have a job to do,” Reynolds says.
“The public needs to recognize the value and purpose of assistance dogs,” Sheila Reynolds says. “These dogs are ready and able to help people twenty-four hours a day, every day of their lives.”
Some powerful and far-reaching legislation has helped to increase this awareness. The Americans With Disabilities Act states that guide and assistance dogs are to be allowed everywhere the general public is allowed, from stores, restaurants and office buildings, to hotels, buses, trains and planes.
“People are learning,” Sheila Reynolds says. “I was in a store with the dog I’m training and these kids were getting excited, ‘Mommy! There’s a dog in the store! He’s not supposed to be in the store!’ But when they saw the dog take my money and go up to the counter and pay the cashier for me, I was glad to hear their mother explain to them that this dog was different. He was working.”
“Working with these dogs isn’t a burden or a sacrifice,” Geoff Reynolds says. “It’s a privilege, an opportunity. I learn and grow and have fun all at the same time.”
And there are other rewards. Like the Christmas card he receives each year from an autistic girl in Toronto, with a photo of her and the dog he trained to be her companion. Or the time a woman called and said, “That dog you trained saved my life.”
“She was confined to her bed,” Reynolds explains. “She always had someone come to her house to walk the dog, but one day the dog wouldn’t leave her bedside. She told me how she got angry and even yelled at the dog to get out, to go with the dog-walker. But the dog wouldn’t budge. Finally, the dog walker noticed that the lady didn’t look very good. They rushed her to the hospital. Turns out, she was having a stroke. The doctor told her later that if she hadn’t gotten there when she did, she wouldn’t have lived.”
At the graduation ceremony in Oregon, Betty Noble’s enthusiasm is contagious. She tells the assembled families, guests and her fellow students, “I got my first guide dog after I had my first child. Because I had the dog to guide me, I could take my daughter out in the stroller. When my second child came, I carried one on my back and the other in the stroller, and with the dog to help us, we went everywhere!”
Now a proud grandmother living in British Columbia, Noble is teamed with Joetta, her fourth guide dog.
“I’m from another country, but still, all the people at Guide Dogs for the Blind, all the many, many volunteers, they help me. It’s just wonderful.”
Noble also helps others. As well as volunteering for Canadian organizations assisting the blind, she teaches computer classes at a community college. “I have lots of students and some happen to be blind. Sometimes there are seven or eight dogs in class. Never a problem.”
Logan is Nevarez’s second guide dog. “Having a guide dog has made me a better person, and a better father, too. I have three young kids. Logan will be a pet to them, but they also see how the dog and I work together, the responsibilities I have for him, and how serious he gets when I put his harness on him.”
Noble explains, “People should realize that guide dogs can’t read traffic signs and lights. And people should always ask for permission before petting a guide dog, because it distracts the dog. I try to explain to them that a guide dog and the person they are guiding are working together, sometimes working very hard, both concentrating.”
A trainer of guide dogs tells the audience that petting a guide dog or grabbing its harness without permission is equivalent to grabbing the steering wheel from a driver.
“That’s true,” Nevarez says. And, as he scratches Logan’s ears, he points out, “You know, this dog is my all-terrain four-wheel drive vehicle!”
To volunteer, make a donation, or just learn more about the many forms of this singular alliance, contact any of the following:
Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation
Bloomfield, CT 06002
The Seeing Eye
P.O. Box 375
Morristown, NJ 07963
Paws With A Cause
4646 South Division
Wayland, Michigan 49348
Guide Dogs For The Blind, Inc.
P. O. Box 151200
San Rafael, CA 94915-1200
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