Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Bond Between Dogs and People

I became blind when I was three after contracting meningitis. The only memory I have of sight, and I’m not even sure how reliable it is, is of my father towering above me, and an enormous amount of light. So perhaps that is a visual memory.

People ask me a lot about my dreams. In my dreams all my perceptions are the same as they are in waking times. My actions are governed by the same incredible power or powerlessness that anyone’s dreams have. So I can be flying or unable to move.

If you think of the map in your mind that maybe holds your house and the kids’ school, you have all that very palpably inside you, it’s like you can movie within it in your mind. My pictures are like that, they’re there. They’re not just memories. What gets imprinted on your eye or your ear finds another place inside you that also bears that imprint.

The above is an excerpt from of an article written by Michelle Hammer on theage.com.au’s website - http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Being-blind/2005/01/14/1105582705986.html describing what it’s like to be blind. For those of us sitting at our computers reading this post, being blind is something that we can only imagine. We sit comfortably on our couches, close our eyes and imagine what it’s like to live in a world where we cannot see. After a few minutes we open our eyes take in the sunlight from the windows, the color on the walls, the faces of our family members in pictures scattered throughout the room. We get up off the couch and continue on our sighted-way.

After WWII, Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson, along with many others, wanted to help wounded servicemen who had lost their sight during the war. Their idea was to train dogs to serve as guides for the blind.

In 1942 they incorporated Guide Dogs for the Blind and student instruction began in a rented home south of San Jose. A rescued German Sheppard named Blondie was trained and paired with the school’s first graduate, Sgt. Leonard Fulk.

Guide Dogs for the Blinds' website, http://www.guidedogs.com/ , describes their unique program of instructors, counselors, veterinarians, nursing staff who work to provide matches that benefit both person and dog. Guide Dogs for the Blind works to partner qualified individuals with specially trained dogs to provide these individuals with increased mobility.

This post is the first highlighting the unique relationship that exists between dogs and people. Over the following weeks, I will post stories featuring the bond that develops between canine and human.

Kim Samco a staff counselor and licensed psychologist for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) answered questions for Farewell Furry Friend about the relationship that develops between a blind or visually impaired person and their Guide Dog. Kim’s interview will be broken into three posts: matching making (pairing a Guide Dog with an individual), the bond that develops between a blind or visually impaired person and their Guide Dog and dealing with the loss of a Guide Dog.

When I asked Kim how someone was paired with a Guide Dog, she said, “The matching process between human and dog is wonderfully complex with a little magic thrown in for good measure.”

Most puppies are born at the GDB’s San Rafael, CA campus. GDB staff and volunteers begin getting acquainted with the puppies immediately. When the pups are about ten weeks old they go to live with a Puppy Raiser for about a year. During this time they are exposed to as many situations and environments as possible. These might include: airports, trains, subways, grocery stores, camp sites, beaches, boats, banks and so on. The Puppy Raisers also devote tons of time, energy and love to teaching these little ones appropriate behaviors such as obedience commands, house training and not scavenging, to name only a few.

Just when these furry guys become good citizens they are returned to one of the two GDB campuses for their formal training. The dog’s formal training takes from two to four months with licensed Guide Dog trainers.

At this point GDB knows a lot about the dogs such as their temperament, strength, how they best learn, which environments they are best suited to, and, in general, what kind of handling is best for them.

Kim told me that when a blind person applies for a Guide Dog, “they share their needs and preferences at the very beginning, on ‘paper.’ The staff person calls to gather more information such as how will they use a dog, what is their lifestyle, are they travelling independently already and so on.”

Next a staff person goes to the applicant’s home (anywhere in North America). The safety and suitability of the home is evaluated, the person’s pace, gate, tone of voice, upper body strength, balance, their orientation to their environment, their family’s attitude to having a Guide Dog join the family…all of these things and more are explored.

Kim says that “after all the details about the person and pup are gathered…the process of matching gets closer. The trainer’s know these dogs intimately, so when they read a person’s needs, particular dogs spring to mind.”

Individuals have the option of coming in for two or three weeks to train with their new partner. Sometimes the trainers might have a couple of dogs in mind for a particular person. At the very beginning of training the trainer and person get further acquainted. During this time the trainer becomes clear about what dog is best.

“Even with all of this time and attention to detail sometimes during the class training it might become clear that the match is not working,” cautions Kim. “The person is included in the decision to continue on with a less than ideal match, if it’s safe, or to train with a different dog. The bottom line is that a team needs to be able to travel safely and effectively.”

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