Celebrating service dogs: The guide dog

What would we do without service dogs? The top-10 service dogs in America are, in no particular order, police dogs, fire dogs, search and rescue dogs, U.S. customs and border protection dogs, military dogs, guide and hearing dogs, therapy dogs, seizure alert dogs, physical assistance dogs and dogs for diabetics. For many people, the last five types make a huge difference in their ability to live independently.

September is National Guide Dog Month, so these dogs are the focus of this week’s column. Guide dogs for blind and visually impaired people are mostly golden retrievers, Labradors or German shepherds, though other breeds may be trained as well. These dogs help their blind partners avoid obstacles and negotiate traffic, curbs and steps.

Guide dogs wear a special harness with a U-shaped handle, which is the communication link between the dog and person. According to Assistance Dogs International (www.assitancedogsinternational.org), “in this partnership, the human’s role is to provide directional commands, while the dog’s role is to insure (sic) the team’s safety even if this requires disobeying an unsafe command.”

Guide dogs begin training when they are seven to eight weeks old. Their first home is with volunteers who provide socialization, lots of love and training in manners and basic obedience. Then, around 18 months of age, dogs go on to advanced training at the organization that sponsors the dog. (Using the online search term “guide dog schools in the United States” will take you to a list of these special schools.)

For the next four months, dogs train with sighted instructors. When this stage is over, dogs are carefully matched with their blind partners. According to Guide Dogs of America (GDA), “carefully matching” means “[taking] the time to get to know both [the] dogs and the incoming students prior to matching. By the time the student and dog are matched, the needs, pace, strength, and personalities of both human and canine have been well assessed” (www.guidedogsofamerica.org). This training takes about four weeks.

You may be wondering, “How much does all this cost?” GDA states that it costs “approximately $42,000 or more, which includes the cost of training the dog and providing instruction for the guide dog user.” The cost for the blind partner can be nothing or very reasonable (at least the ones I checked out), depending on the organization.

The final information needed here are two issues of guide dog etiquette — not for the dog but for sighted humans. First, always address the person first, not the dog. According to GDA, “to just greet the dog or to greet the dog first is very disrespectful to the handler.” Second, never pet a guide dog unless you ask permission first. Do not take offense if the blind partner says no. Petting an “on-duty” dog may cause distraction, putting the blind person at risk.

As final notes to this week’s article, we are still seeking items for our garage sale on Sept. 19 – 20. CAPS volunteers will again be at Taylor Place Storage (at 1105 Taylor Place, the street next to Walmart), unit 82A, from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sept. 6 and 13 to receive your donations.

Can’t make it on those dates or are housebound or have items too big to handle? All you need to do is call Rita Hand, and she will schedule a pickup for you (home: 775-423-6346; cell: 775-427-3376). Should Rita not immediately take your call, please leave a message, and she will return your call as soon as she can.

Also, time is running out to buy raffle tickets for a 15-gallon stunning sycamore tree valued at $89.99! This shade-giving tree is Flower Tree Nursery’s latest contribution to CAPS, for which we are always grateful. Tickets are $1 each or six for $5, and all proceeds directly benefit our shelter guests. The drawing will be held on Monday at Flower Tree, and you don’t have to be present to win.

This week’s article was contributed by Betty Duncan, a CAPS volunteer.


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