If you followed along on our series of articles about the training our students go through when they come on campus to get their guide dogs, then you know a bit about the process of matching someone with their perfect guide. It is actually quite a bit more involved than we were able to cover so far, so we wanted to delve a bit deeper into the science and art of the perfect match.
The match process starts long before students arrive on campus. As the trainers take their dogs through the training process, they are keeping track of all the dog’s idiosyncrasies, each little thing to which they react, how fast they tend to walk, the ease or difficulty of correcting them and myriad other little nuances that will aid in finding the perfect person for them to guide. Detailed training logs are kept on each dog, so the trainers can refer to them at any time, all in preparation for when the dogs will be matched.
On the student side of things, information is gathered right from the very first contact. Graduate Services conducts in-depth interviews to learn as much about the student as possible prior to being accepted into the program.
After completing an application and a series of phone interviews, one of our certified trainers makes a home visit. During this visit, the trainer is looking at a variety of criteria to aid in making the right match.
The student is taken on a “Juno” walk where the trainer holds the harness as if they are the dog guiding the student (Juno was one of the first guide dogs, hence the name). Here they are noting the student’s “pace and pull;” the pace at which they prefer to walk; and how much pressure they need on the harness handle in order to be guided. They will repeat this exercise on campus, but having them do it in a familiar environment may net different results, as their confidence is usually higher in an area that is not foreign to them.
During the home visit, the trainer is also paying attention to the area in which the person lives and is learning about their day-to-day life. Whether the area is urban or rural, the person's activity level, and even the level of tidiness will make a difference in the eventual match to a dog. Now you are probably wondering why someone’s tidiness would matter. Well, we wouldn’t want to match a dog that has a tendency to hide toys with someone who was less than fastidious or they may never find things they leave laying about.
We also take into consideration the student’s preference. Depending on the amount of residual sight they have, some students prefer a dog that would be a high contrast against their home environment so that they can see them more easily, such as a black dog in a home decorated mainly in shades of beige (although, if you ask me, that’s just asking for more time needed for cleaning).
Some students who are coming to us after having a previous guide typically ask for either a dog just like their previous guide or one that is the polar opposite so that they won’t make comparisons. Bear in mind that the bond between guide dog and handler is extremely strong, so sometimes it may be easier for a handler to transition to a new dog if they are not constantly reminded of their previous guide.
Once the students come to Southeastern Guide Dogs for the 26-day training period, the trainers take them on another Juno walk. This time they are in an unfamiliar environment, so their pace may be a bit slower and more unsure than when they did the exercise at home. The students also do a test walk with a dog in training so that the trainers can get an idea of their handling skills and how comfortable they are in correcting and controlling a dog that is just on a leash walking with them.
After the trainers have observed the students and have spoken with them about their expectations, then the team of trainers meets to discuss who gets matched with whom. Each training team has a number of dogs they have taken through the formal harness training process along with “pass-backs” from the previous class (dogs that were not matched because there wasn’t the perfect person for them) from which to make their matches.
The afternoon of the student’s second day on campus is highly anticipated: it is when they get to meet their new guide. Each student is told the dog's name, breed, sex, and color and then asked to go wait in a room. Each student eagerly awaits the time when the trainer knocks on the door and enters with a new partner. After introductions are made, the student is given the rest of the afternoon to get to know the dog and begin the bonding process before the training begins in earnest the next day.
While the majority of matches are spot-on from the start, there is the rare occasion when a dog may have seemed perfect for someone, but as the training progressed, it turned out not to be the case. It could be that as the person got more comfortable, their pace increased and now the dog was too slow. There are a variety of other reasons a match might not work. In that case, the trainers would re-examine the dogs in their string and find one that would be a better match.
Over nearly 30 years, Southeastern Guide Dogs has been perfecting the process of matching our world-class guide dogs with their perfect handler. In that time, more than 2,500 successful matches have been made. It appears we have a track record to rival even the best matchmakers.