Carla and I were in San Rafael, Marin County/California last week. We got lost looking for a burrito place my sister had recommended for lunch and overshot “High Tech Burrito” by about three blocks. As we were making a U-turn I almost drove into the Guide Dogs For The Blind sign.
For some reason, I had completely forgotten that the world-famous Guide Dogs For The Blind was headquartered in San Rafael, California. Maybe it was dumb luck or divine intervention… I don’t know? But this was a place I’d wanted to visit, for a long time.
So, after enjoying our burritos (I enjoyed mine a little too much, by the way!) we high-tailed it back to the Guide Dogs For The Blind campus and went inside.
It was a Saturday, and they were getting ready for a “graduation” in a few hours… so we got lucky that they were even open to the general public.
Now, let me say right off the bat: This article is not meant to be a comprehensive break-down of the entire Guide Dogs organization. You can learn more by going to the Guide Dogs For The Blind web site. We plan to return some day and do their official “tour” and hopefully get a chance to talk with some of their dog trainers. We did not have time to do that, on this trip– as you need to schedule in advance. [If anybody reading this article is from the Guide Dogs organization– feel free to add your input by posting in the comments section and I’ll be happy to incorporate them into the article].
What I’m going to do here is to share a few impressions and observations that you won’t get from their official web site. Some “Secrets” if you will:
Let me begin by saying: This whole organization (from what we observed, anyway) is 100% classy! Everything from the manicured lawns stretching around their 14 acre campus to the staff and army of volunteers: Everyone was polite, well-spoken, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and… possessing a good attitude. I think the demeanor and morale of even the people at the front desk and those who work the cash register can tell you a little something about the corporate ethos of a place.
One of the things that Guide Dogs For The Blind is famous for within the larger dog training community is the way they virtually pioneered modern puppy testing. Between their testing and breeding program, they’ve been able to boost the success of puppies going through their program up to 90%. And in the process, they’ve taught the dog training community a lot about how to pick a puppy as a companion dog, too. Many of the techniques I use to select puppies from a litter were taken from them (as well as from the landmark 17 year academic Scott and Fuller study). I go into more detail about this in my book.
While we were in the pro shop, we met and talked with two ladies during our visit. One of these women kept a “breeder dog”.
Guide Dogs For The Blind can’t house and raise every puppy– so they solicit an army of volunteers to raise their puppies. Some of those volunteers take and keep their “Breeder” dogs and raise them in their homes. These dogs are exemplary in every way and are crucial to their breeding program.
Typically, a family will adopt a puppy and raise it for the first 14+ months of the dog’s life, before surrendering it back to the Guide Dogs program for training. After about a year of training, the dog “graduates” and is placed with it’s working handler (someone who is vision impaired). The “breeder” dogs are the best of the best.
When a handler has a guide dog that gets injured, the dog is returned to the Guide Dogs For The Blind Headquarters for rehabilitation. Other volunteers will keep the dog in their home, while the dog goes through rehab at the campus. So, volunteers usually live close by, and commit to a full schedule to nurse the dog back to 100% health.
The Black Labrador in the picture was one such dog. If I remember correctly, he had a torn ligament.
One of the things that struck me was that: The Black Labrador was wearing a choke chain collar. Which surprised me, because I had always heard that the Guide Dogs official line was that they used “all positive” techniques. Which I always thought was a line of b.s., considering that it’s impossible to train a working dog to do this kind of work using a 100% “food bribery” approach. So, I was happy to see that common sense abounds, and that they weren’t trying to make some silly effort to hide the training collar by putting it under a bandana or some other nonsense.
Upon further investigation, I found on their web site this quote:
Our dogs are trained with high value rewards of both food and praise. An abundance of rewards, including physical and verbal affection, builds motivation, confidence and produces a happy working Guide Dog. When a dog makes an error, verbal and leash/collar cues are used to gain the correct response so the dog can experience reward and refocus the dog on its work. At the moment the undesired action stops, and the dog follows a command, the dog is given abundant reward and heartfelt praise.
So in other words: They’re using a balanced approach to training… which makes me happy to see.
I did see a “puppy raiser” using a Gentle Leader (or Halti? I can’t tell the difference), though.
One thing I noticed about these dogs– which is likely a direct result of their controlled breeding program– is that: These dogs are extremely passive. Not submissive, just passive. Passive to the point that it was a little disconcerting. Now, don’t get me wrong: These dogs are bred for a specific role in society. A role I support 100%. It’s just that: Being around pet dogs for most of my life… these dogs were so passive in their demeanor that it seemed almost unnatural. Again– a result of their breeding program, I guess?
I’ve always felt that: If you want a dog to a specific job, then use a breed that has been developed to do that job.
Guided Dogs For The Blind uses Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Lab/Golden mixes in their program… but mostly Labradors. These are not your typical Labs, though. If I were King-of-all-things-dog, I would probably set aside their breeding program as almost an off-shoot of the Labrador breed. That should give you some idea as to how different these dogs are from the hunting bloodline dogs (or even the showline dogs).
Many people have asked about adopting a dog as a pet from their breeding program. You can do that. The “wash out” dogs are adopted out, albeit with a long waiting list apparently. These might be dogs with too much ball-drive, or dogs that simply aren’t passive enough for a vision impaired handler. In any event, I think these dogs would make excellent pets for your average American household with kids.
One of the things that struck me about the pro shop was that they were only selling Kong chew toys and “Goughnuts”. I had never heard of Goughnuts before, so I asked several of the dog handlers standing around about their experience with the product. Everyone raved about them.
Some handlers even told me that they last longer than the Kongs, in some cases. And the company (a “Made in America” company, according to the volunteer manning the cash register) will replace the Goughnut if your dog wears it out. Here’s a tip: If you buy one through the Guide Dogs For The Blind web site, they’re a lot cheaper than if you buy one from the Goughnut web site. A lot cheaper!
I can’t vouch for this product yet, as our house-dog hasn’t expressed much interest in it. According to the Goughnuts web site:
“One of the reasons we made the Stick our next design, was to add another dimension to our product line . Our Original GoughNut has many accolades but one issue that we have heard is that a dog that cannot destroy a toy might ignore it. For those dogs, the GoughNuts Stick in combination with the original GoughNut, produces the GoughNuts puzzle.”
I didn’t buy the stick because it looks like this– and I don’t want that thing lying around the house when friends and family come to visit.
Apparently, the Goughnut stick fits inside the Goughnut “donut”. In any event– it’s nice to find a product other than the Kong Toys that will (allegedly) hold up. Mr Juan Valdez here only seems to be interested in it when I’m playing with him… but sometimes it takes a few months and then suddenly a dog will wake up one morning and “decide” that said toy is his favorite.
So, to recap some of the Secrets we learned from the Guide Dogs For The Blind:
- They use a balanced approach to training.
- They use dogs from their own breeding program.
- Their breeding program has been designed to breed dogs that fit their training methodology and their intended use.
- Dogs are kept in peak health and when they need rehabilitation due to an injury, they are kept by someone who is familiar with their training system and will not “undo” the training
- The two women I talked with both feed Eukanuba.
- The chew toys they recommend are mostly Kong and Goughnuts.
- The dogs are raised in homes by “puppy raisers” who follow a strict socialization program. At 14+ months of age, the dogs are returned to the campus where they begin their formal training program
If you’d like to visit the Guide Dogs For The Blind Headquarters, they can be reached at:
National Office: P.O. Box 151200, San Rafael, CA 94915-1200 (800) 295-4050
California Campus: 350 Los Ranchitos Road, San Rafael, CA 94903 (415) 499-4000
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