I spent a recent weekend at an event that brought together guide dog teams, puppy raisers, and trainers, all from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based organization. It was a “continuing education” weekend, offering training and coaching for teams, education on dog related topics ranging from breeding for success to technology that eases travel for guide dog teams, and opportunities for people who work with guide dogs to meet the people who raised and trained them. Nothing like it had ever happened before at any guide dog school.
The weekend was three years in the making. The idea was initially met with skepticism from the training staff, though it was immediately embraced by the grad teams and puppy raisers. As teams arrived at the hotel, those of us who had planned the event and were checking them in began to have doubts. 80 guide dog teams in one hotel? What were we thinking? Arriving dogs, on recognizing kennel buddies, puppy pals, trainers, or, best of all, their puppy raisers — their first families — momentarily forgot their manners and bounced, danced, and wagged with joy. Grads, meeting familiar friends and encountering new ones, were equally emotional. The dogs, at least, quickly remembered their excellent breeding and top-notch training and focused on getting their partners to their rooms. Which was no small challenge in the most confusing hotel I’ve ever seen.
Over the weekend, humans and dogs continued to amaze. An army of volunteers, primarily puppy raisers, escorted blind attendees to tables in the dining room and helped them navigate the extensive buffet meals. In sessions, anywhere from a dozen to eighty calm dogs relaxed under tables and at handlers’ feet, oblivious to distractions. They worked through bustling hallways and deftly steered around other teams, running children, concrete pillars, and tempting indoor gardens of lush vegetation.
The weekend was important for so many reasons. Puppy raisers, including some who have been raising and socializing puppies for more than twenty years, got to see living, breathing examples of how their hard work and devotion improves lives. Graduates got to meet the wonderful people who raise the puppies who become their partners. All of us met new friends (or finally met in person people we’d been communicating with for years!). Everyone got a better understanding of what it takes to turn a tiny puppy into a working guide.
This special event provided enough information and stories for several blog posts, which I’ll write and post over the next weeks. Most of all, it was an outstanding example of how capable, creative, and flexible dogs — and their human partners — truly are.