Whitney and I got off the train from Milwaukee Saturday only to turn around and jump in the car with Mike to drive down to Champaign! I spoke to an animal sciences class yesterday morning at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Whitney stole the show, of course.
My three-year-old Golden Retriever/Yellow Lab cross has been home with me a year already, and I spoke with the class about how confident and comfortable she seems in her
work now. After that I went over some of the qualifications necessary to become a guide dog instructor. Most guide dog schools require instructors to have a college degree and then do an apprenticeship, and apprenticeships can last as long as four years. I hope I did a decent enough job explaining how complicated it can be to train dogs, train people, and then make a perfect match between the human and canine — if so, those undergrads walked out of class with a new appreciation of why the apprenticeships last so long.
Once apprentices finish their training and become full-time Seeing Eye Instructors, they’re assigned a string (a group) of dogs and given four months to train that string. Throughout the training, instructors pay close attention to each dog’s pace and pull, and they make careful notes about how each dog deals with distractions, what their energy level is, and all sorts of other characteristics. And then? We blind students fly in from all over North America to be matched — and trained — with a new dog.
Seeing Eye instructors have to be as good at evaluating people as they are evaluating dogs. Our instructors review our applications before we arrive on campus and then ask us tons more questions when we get there. Instructors take us on “Juno” walks (they hold the front of the harness to guide us through all sorts of scenarios to get an idea of how fast we like to walk and how strong of a pull we’ll want from our dog) and then combine all of this information with what they know about their string of dogs, talk it over with fellow instructors and the team supervisor, mix in a little bit of gut instinct, and voila! A match is formed.
Each Seeing Eye instructor trains more dogs than they’ll need for a class. If a dog has a pace, pull, or energy level that doesn’t match with a blind person in the current class, that dog remains on campus with daily walks and care, and perhaps more training, until the next class arrives.
My first dog, a Black Lab named Pandora, was one of those Seeing Eye dogs who went through a second round of training before she was matched with me. Back in 1991, the Seeing Eye knew that the dog they matched me with would be landing in the home of a very unique five-year-old boy named Gus, and that the dog would be in the hands of a woman who had never had a dog before. I’m sure they figured Pandora would need all the extra training she could get!
The Seeing Eye took special pains to train Whitney for me, too. She did a lot of her training in New York City, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Our past week together serves as a great example of Whitney’s versatility: one day she leading me down streets to a St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Milwaukee, the next day down crooked brick sidewalks in rustic Urbana, and today, back to work leading me down Michigan Avenue.
Whitney is very game. She is nonplussed by unusual or chaotic predicaments, and her confidence in the city is contagious. None of the dogs are perfect, though. Whitney chewed through yet another leather leash while lying at my feet on the train ride home from Milwaukee. Hard to blame her, I guess. Sitting on the train is boring. She’s a cosmopolitan girl who needs to go, go, go. I just need to check on her more often when we’re sitting still. And always make sure I’m carrying a spare leash.