When you encounter a visually impaired person on the street with their guide dog, please address the owner first and the dog second after receiving permission from the owner to do so.
This is a first rule of etiquette I have learned during my month-long working interview for a position as veterinary director for Guide Dogs of America (GDA). I attended my first graduation of students who received their guide dogs at the same time as my first interview for the veterinary position and would like to share some life changing experiences.
Guide dogs recipients are required to be housed on a guide dog campus for 3-4 weeks to match each of them to their perfect dog. They then undergo extensive supervised training to learn how to relate and command their “new eyes.” During this training period the students bond closely with their fellow students and their dog. This experience leads to the selection of a classmate who may represent the emotions of the class with a commencement speech on their new-found freedom of movement.
For my first graduation, I got to hear a young man from North Carolina explain in his heavy southern drawl how he chose Guide Dogs of America when he went to a fishing event for the visually impaired and 70 of the participants had guide dogs from GDA. He knew right then that his goal was to qualify for a guide dog from the organization.
Qualifying and getting a guide dog can take years of waiting. Tears came to my eyes as he recounted his 4-week course with his dog and his personal dog trainer, and shared the personal, touching experiences of his classmates during that time. And yet his speech was laced with an understated sense of southern humor that had us laughing despite the high level of emotion. He ended by taking out and unfolding his red and white walking cane. He explained how this had been his only means of mobility throughout his life.
“Today, this is now my spare tire,” he said. Gesturing in the direction of his guide dog, he added “I have a new set of wheels.” His guide dog had opened his life for greater mobility and more life experiences and you could feel his enormous gratitude.
Each graduate and each “puppy raiser” of a graduating guide dog were also asked to give a short comment about their experience and their new dog. Each impromptu speech was emotionally packed as we learned how the puppy matured into its new role during its socialization period with its puppy raising family. Each graduate expressed the same new sense of freedom and gratitude so eloquently detailed by the commencement speaker. But my glimpse into the world of the visually impaired and guide dogs did not end at the graduation ceremony.
By chance, one of the puppy raisers of a graduating guide dog was an old friend. I had been the roller hockey coach for Cindy’s son 15 years ago. She always came to his games with a guide dog puppy her family was raising. She was an area leader for puppy raisers so I had also occasionally given veterinary presentations to her group.
After graduation, she and her now grown children asked me to join them for lunch with the graduate that was paired with the dog they had raised, his wife, and the donor sponsor of the puppy.
It costs $40,000 to raise and train a guide dog to graduation. This sponsor regularly makes this donation from her late husband’s trust, specifically dedicated to GDA. The trust also recently donated all the money necessary to build a new facility on the GDA campus in Sylmar, California. Those qualifying receive their guide dog for free. GDA’s budget for breeding, raising, training, and maintaining dogs and housing, as well as feeding and training recipients, comes entirely from donations to the non-profit organization.
For two hours we listened as the graduate, Richard, led us through the world of the visually impaired. He recounted that he and his graduating classmates shared stories of their various injuries from falls or situations they encountered with only their canes to rely on. He shared how his new Retriever guide would make his life different and how the dog would fit into their family of two Chihuahuas and multiple cats.
But the most touching story came from Cindy. While raising one of her many puppies, she was approached in a grocery store parking lot by a woman who accusatorily asked, “How can you make that dog be a guide dog?” Cindy replied, “Our organization does not make any dog be a guide. The only dogs that become guides are the ones that love it. They choose.”
Cindy then asked the women where her dogs were. The woman replied that they were in her backyard. Cindy said, “This dog will never be left home alone in the backyard, but will have the greatest life, always happy and content to be with his human.”
This was truly a day that changed my life and is one I will never forget. If you have a chance, sit down and talk to someone with a service dog. The time will give you a new perspective on life and the role of dogs in our lives.
Dr. Ken Tudor
Image: Tibanna79 / Shutterstock