Imagine going someplace completely foreign to you, where you will have to live and work with a group of people for the next 26 days to go through an intense training course on how to use something that is vital to your mobility. You will be out of your normal routine and away from friends and family. Oh, and add to the mix that you are also blind.
No, you aren’t on a new version of Survivor. You have come to Southeastern Guide Dogs to receive a new guide.
This week seven people have gladly stepped up to that challenge and are beginning their journey toward increased independence and mobility. For the next few weeks in this column, you are going to get to follow along this journey and learn all about what it takes to train a human to work with a guide dog.
After filling out an application, going through the interviewing and home visit process and getting the exciting call letting them know they have been accepted, the new students begin to arrive on Southeastern Guide Dogs’ campus. They are given an orientation of the administration building and meet their trainers and much of the staff they will be working with for the next 26 days. Then the fun begins!
Students are led by their trainers in what is referred to as a “Juno” walk. This exercise is where the trainer holds the harness as if they were the guide dog (Juno is the name of one of the first guide dogs) in order to get a feeling for the “pace and pull” that best suits the student so they can match them with a dog with a similar gait. The trainers also inquire about the student’s lifestyle and daily activities to get a handle on how active they may be and how much work the dog may be doing with them.
Then the trainers, much like matchmakers, pow-wow over which dog should be matched up with which student. It is a bit of science, a bit of art and a lot of experience, all working together to make the right match. The unique aspect of guide dog training, and Southeastern’s program in particular, is that the trainers who have been working with the dogs through their formal harness training for the past six months are the same trainers who now instruct the students on how to work with these wonderful animals. Each certified trainer works with three students maximum, so there is a lot of personalized attention throughout the experience.
Then it is on to the most exciting moment for the students — when they get to meet their new guide for the very first time! The student waits nervously in his or her room for the trainers to bring in their new charge, and typically pandemonium erupts with wagging tails and slobbery kisses and the occasional tears of joy. The new pair then spends the rest of the afternoon getting acquainted before the real work begins.
Bright and early, the group gathers for an obedience class before heading out onto the Nature Trail, where they and their guides will be taking their first steps together as a team. The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus was designed to mimic a number of different environments that a visually impaired person may encounter. The first “route” the students take is along a winding path lined with the occasional bench, tree, squirrel or other distraction. The dogs have been trained to keep their handler directly in the middle of the path. The trick is for the handler to learn to trust the dog and follow where it leads.
The day begins with a short obedience class, and then the students start out working routes again. This day the teams head over to the Freedom Walk and will be focusing on curbs. Stopping at a curb is one of the most critical jobs the dogs perform; it keeps the handler from either tripping up or off a curb into traffic or, in the case of a “blended” curb that does not have a discernible elevation difference, it will keep the handler from walking out into traffic. There are a variety of curb configurations that the students and their dogs learn to work over the course of their training on campus.
After obedience, the teams will once again work routes on campus. The routes get longer as the teams gather confidence and really begin to gel as cohesive units. The training is designed to increase in difficulty as the teams progress. Once the teams have mastered the Nature Trail and Freedom Trail, then it is time to broaden their horizons.
Next week they will be heading out on the town. Stay tuned.