If you have been watching NBC's Today Show recently you know about "Wrangler" the guide dog puppy from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. In an unprecedented TV event, the cast and crew of Today is raising a puppy who may one day become a guide dog for a blind person. I have more than passing interest in this because I'm a graduate of Guiding Eyes and I've traveled around the world with three remarkable yellow Labrador Retrievers. I'm alive today because of the intelligence and loyalty of my guides. Watching Today I'm heartened by the cast and crew's enthusiasm for the guide dog movement and I'm reminded that it really does take a village to breed, raise, and train every single service dog.
The village is filled with astonishing people. Not everyone can deeply love a puppy for over a year and then give it back to the guide dog school. Not everyone can martial the discipline to train a puppy to have manners and fully understand a range of commands. And while puppy raisers don't actually train future guide dogs in the intricacies of traffic work, they do prepare the pups by exposing them to the hustle and bustle of the world, giving them a foundation of confidence. When the puppies return to Guiding Eyes they're ready to learn. And ready to rely on their own assurance and motivation.
When I travel with my guide, people often ask me questions. Though many folks know guide dogs exist, few have ever seen one in person. This is because blindness is a low incidence disability. In truth there aren't many guide dog users in the U.S. We're a minority's minority. There are roughly 12 guide dog schools in America and approximately 15,000 guide dog teams. Though the sight of a blind person and guide dog walking confidently in traffic is inspiring and holds a place in the public's imagination, there aren't as many of us as you'd think. Given that working with a professionally trained dog gives blind people an edge in traffic, and owing to the fact guide dogs are offered free of charge (despite the hefty cost of their training) I think the partnership between Guiding Eyes and Today is truly significant. More people, blind and otherwise need to know about the guide dog movement.
As I say, people ask me questions. "How does your dog know when to cross the street?" Guide dogs don't make that decision, their blind handler does. What a guide dog does is remarkable: she evaluates the wisdom of the command. If it's not safe to cross she won't budge. This is called "intelligent disobedience" and it represents the marriage of a dog's instinct for self-preservation with sophisticated training. It takes a dog with oodles of confidence to make life or death decisions.
"When your dog gets old what happens to it?" (This is a frequent question and it can happen anywhere--in an airport, riding in a taxi.) You can keep your guide dog as a family pet when it grows old. If your circumstances don't allow for this, the guide dog school has a list of loyal puppy raisers and volunteers who will lovingly look after a retired guide. They are doted on.
"Is your dog trained to protect you?" (People think blindness means you're especially vulnerable. This question has more to do with imaginary fear than reality.) No. Guide dogs aren't trained to attack people. On the other hand, once, about ten years ago, while I was waiting for a bus rather late at night, a drunk lunged toward me making exaggerated Frankenstein noises. My guide dog at the time was "Vidal" and he stood up on his hind legs and let out a ferocious bark. Vidal wasn't having any of that nonsense. The drunk shrank into himself. And just then the bus pulled up. The driver had seen it all. "Give that dog a steak when you get home!" he said.
I became a guide dog convert long ago. I believe a confident and tireless canine companion offers advantages to navigating with a white cane. I think more blind and visually impaired people need to know about the services offered free of charge by America's best guide dog schools. I'm heartened to see NBC and Guiding Eyes team up to share a guide dog puppy's story. Go get 'em Wrangler!