Guide dogs face new challenges

Guide dogs and their handlers have always undergone intense training on dealing with distractions from squirrels to skateboarder. But today's guide dogs have a whole new generation of things to worry about: quiet cars, button-activated walk signals, stroller traffic on handicapped curb-cuts, and a greater likelihood of interacting with other dogs.

"It used to that be you encountered other dogs mostly on sidewalks while you were going down the street," said Morgan Watkins, acting president and chief executive officer of Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has campuses in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, and in Boring, Oregon.

Nowadays, he said, a guide dog might encounter another dog in a supermarket aisle or at the mall or the dentist's office, he said. There are few places pets can't be found these days. "We work very hard with the assumption that your dog can be distracted anywhere," said Watkins, who started losing his vision at age 11.

Anything or anyone that keeps a guide dog from focusing on its work is considered a distraction - and becomes something the dog is trained to ignore. But everyone can help guide dogs and their handlers avoid some distractions. One basic rule: Don't pet a guide dog without permission.

Because the dogs are so highly trained and well-behaved, people want to touch them, Watkins said. Many times, he said, he has reached down to learn which way his dog Will is looking, only to find someone else's hand already on the dog.

Guide dogs not trained to fight

Another simple way to minimise distractions for guide dogs is to keep your own dog leashed.

But if a dog barks at Will, Watkins said he would probably keep moving. "Odds are he won't flinch," he said. Guide dogs are also not trained to fight. If a guide dog is attacked by another animal, handlers will drop the harness and call for help. Another new distraction or hazard for guide dog teams is the electric car.

Watkins has excellent hearing and can usually make out the sound of an electric car, but it's difficult at noisy intersections. That's why guide dogs are taught intelligent disobedience - defying an order to keep a partner safe, Watkins explained. If Watkins tells Will to go and there is an electric car going through an intersection, he will not go.

"When the dog disobeys, I follow my dog. It's part of the trust," he said. In addition to quiet cars, other environmental elements and distractions that have necessitated changes in guide-dog training include six-lane streets, traffic islands, roundabouts, cars turning right on red, wheelchair-accessible curbs, button-activated walk signals and even baby strollers using handicapped ramps and curb cuts, Watkins said.

Watkins got his first guide dog at age 40 and became CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind after a long career in computer technology. Walking with Will, he feels through the harness when the dog turns his body, changes pace or cranes his head. "The dog isn't making any noise, the environment is making a noise. He sees and leads. I direct and praise," he said.

Guide dogs and technology

Cecilia von Beroldingen, who lost her sight as an adult, relies on all types of technology, from a talking GPS called TrekkerBreeze that tells her where she is and how to get home, to an iPhone app that audibly identifies currency, barcodes and colours.

But von Beroldingen, who runs a state forensic training facility in Sacramento called the California Criminalistics Institute, relies on a guide dog in addition to the technology. The gadgets won't steer her clear of obstacles like tree limbs or ladders or a forgotten child's toy.

They won't find her a seat at the airport, help her board a bus or navigate an escalator. And when the day is done, no mechanical device can compete with the warmth of a loving dog at her side, a companion she trusts like no other.

She got her first dog, Kola, in 1994. "She saved my life, she was my best friend," she said. Von Beroldingen got Kola and her current guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The organisation breeds its own dogs, with puppies spending their first eight weeks at San Rafael, followed by 16 months with a trainer for those dogs that are suited for the program.

After two or three months at a school, the dog teams up with its handler and is trained for another few weeks. Watkins said the school pairs up humans and dogs that have the same personalities, same demeanour, even the same gait. If the blind person can't afford vet care, Guide Dogs will pay for it, he said.

Most guide dogs work until they are 8 to 10 years old, Watkins said. When they retire, they can stay with their partner, or Guide Dogs will place them in an adoptive home.

Guide Dogs for the Blind trained about 2,200 of the 10,000 guide dogs working in the US and Canada today. September is National Guide Dog month and several groups are working to raise money and awareness for the cause, including Dick Van Patten's Natural Balance pet food, Petco and Independent Pet Food Stores.

(Sue Manning, AP, September 2011) 

Read more:

Save your sight

Vision problems

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