by Helen Conroy
ARCADIA – “The Guide Dogs are here!” cheered my 10-year-old 4th grader, Max, as he hung up our classroom phone. It was 8:58 a.m., Friday, October 5. As class phone operator, he had just been notified by the office that our furry visitors had finally arrived at Camino Grove.
We had been anticipating their arrival for two weeks. Along with 3 other 4th grade classes, we had done the following preparation for their visit: boned up on Guide Dogs of America literature provided by GDA; made thinking maps and taken an assessment to show our learning; collected donations of blankets, towels, and toys for the puppies and dogs that live at the Sylmar training facility; watched puppies live on the GDA web site puppy cam; read literature in our curriculum focused on blindness; and acted out proper guide dog etiquette, such as never distracting a working guide dog and talking to the owner, not the dog.
As 4th graders funneled through the auditorium doors for the GDA assembly, they were greeted by two 13-month-old Labrador Retrievers, donning yellow GDA training jackets. Though brothers, one of the pups was black and the other was yellow. Students cooed, “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” as they spotted the dogs wagging their tails excitedly and cooling off their wooly coats with pink, panting tongues. Puppy raisers, Carol Jarvis and Diana Snyder, then introduced the pups-in-training as “Cooper” and “Aiden,” as the dogs stretched out on the linoleum flooring like carefree siblings on vacation. It was hard to believe that they could someday be a life-changing partner for a person with blindness, guiding them through a crowded street with ease, or helping them start up a social conversation at a Starbucks café. If they passed the program, which only 60% of pups-in-training are able to accomplish, they would be services dogs for up to 8 years (most guide dogs retire between the age of 8 and 10).
Demonstrating to students one of many challenges facing people who can’t see, Synder stepped up onto one of the auditorium stage stairs. She asked students to imagine how hard it would be to walk up those steps if they couldn’t see and had no partner to guide them. Though only 21, Synder is already in her 6th year as a volunteer puppy raiser. In that capacity, she has seen first-hand how her puppies have enhanced the lives of their eventual blind partners.
Though she took a year off here and there, Jarvis, 66, has been a volunteer puppy raiser for over 20 years. She shared with students that though raising and training one guide dog costs GDA about $42,000, service comes free of charge to those blind or visually impaired who qualify. As puppy raisers, Jarvis and Synder work with a GDA pup from the time they are about 7 weeks old until they are a year and a half. They then have to say goodbye to the pup so that it can advance to formal training for an additional 4 to 6 months at the Guide Dogs of America facility in Sylmar. Though this is hard for puppy raisers to do, most tears shed are tears of joy for the new owner, whose life will dramatically change for the better because of their service dog.
As the assembly concluded, students were given a special treat – being allowed to pet the pups. Cooper and Aiden lay on the floor like sedated patients on a vet’s surgery table, as 132 sets of wiggly hands stroked their coats, touched their yellow training jackets, and shook their paws. It was as if these dogs knew they must endure this prodding for a greater cause, as acting ambassadors for the Guide Dogs of America program. Our hats go off to these devoted creatures and the dedicated GDA puppy raisers and trainers who help lead them down their noble path, guiding a blind or visually impaired person to a fuller, less isolated life.
(No Ratings Yet)