Guide dog puppies begin basic training in Texas

By Joe Snell | DFW Newsflash | January 2017

Amy Smith was both nervous and excited as she walked in front of a crowd of well wishers and veteran guide dogs to accept Tomei, an 8-week old yellow Labrador puppy, as part of the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) puppy delivery event at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Thursday, Jan. 12.

Amy is one of six members of the Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers, the most recently established of GDB’s five puppy clubs in DFW. Members from all of the Dallas clubs and their guide dogs welcomed the new puppies, which were flown in from a GDB campus on the West Coast, to be raised for 15 to 17 months before being flown back for further training.

“We’re flying in puppies about every month, and we’re flying out dogs,” said Sandi Alsworth, a Community Field Representative for Texas. “We actually have two dogs leaving to go to formal training on the 21st. They’re both flying to our Oregon campus.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind serves blind or low vision individuals throughout the United States and Canada. The organization, now the second largest school in the world of its kind, has been raising dogs since 1942 and has two main campuses, one in San Rafael, Calif. and a second in Boring, Ore.

Alsworth, who has been volunteering with the program for 15 years, takes on a number of responsibilities for the non-profit including looking after the group leaders and trainers, evaluating the dogs three to four times a year, and being on call for any type of emergency.

“I’m making sure that [the puppies] are attaining levels we need them to attain while they’re here and making sure they’re viable animals for our program,” Alsworth said. “If they’re having difficulties or if they’re having challenges, I give them special protocols to work with.”

Preparations for the raisers began months before the puppies were flown in and included a combination of classes, events, and hands-on dog-sitting.

“We’ve had a lot of different meetings that we’ve gone to,” Smith said, a former zookeeper at the Dallas zoo. “We had a three hour class for Puppy 101 where we got to learn a lot of the basic care and training. Since our club is new, groups like the Fort Worth group and Dallas group lent us some of their dogs that were in training, so we could practice with them. We’ve also puppy sat for some other dogs that are currently in training. There are lots of different ways of getting experience.”

After the initial classes and application, a home study took place to make sure the puppy’s new home was a suitable environment. If someone is not in a position to raise a puppy, GDB accepts volunteers for a number of other roles.

“We have a lot of people that can’t raise a puppy on their own and they’ve become puppy sitters for us,” Alsworth said. “We train everybody from the get go. We have local leaders and the guide dogs have staff support who are evaluating the dogs and assisting in the training.”

GDB functions entirely through volunteers and donations. The program does not charge blind or visually impaired individuals for their newly trained dog upon completion of the formal program.

“I liked that there’s no charge for the person that [the dog goes] to work with,” Smith said. “For a lot of companies or different groups, it can be upwards of $4,500 to get a fully trained service dog, but Guide Dogs for the Blind does not charge at all.”

GDB has been breeding dogs for over 75 years. Dogs are evaluated primarily on temperament and confidence. GDB uses only Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and a mix of both breeds know as Golden Labradors.

“We’re trying to breed for a calm, relaxed temperament, but a dog that’s confident enough to do the work,” Alsworth said. “They are going to be managed by a blind person, so this is a dog that’s not resistant to people handling them or touching them or manipulating them.”

Golden Retrievers are generally trained differently than their Labrador counterparts.

“It’s been cool to watch how different Goldens and Labs are,” Sophie Herran, a Golden Retriever raiser said. “[Golden Retrievers] are much more of a challenge. They’re more distracted, more sensitive, but they’re also very socially aware.”

Becky Clark, a former professional dog trainer, is the leader of the Fort Worth group, a club that has eight dogs currently being trained.

Clark’s dog Sinead is on breeder watch, where she will be evaluated as a potential guide dog breeder. If chosen, she will move into a custodian home near one of the two main campuses. If not, she will be spayed and placed into formal training college, the period after the initial 15 to 17 months of basic training. Formal training generally lasts 12 to 16 weeks. Dogs that do not make it through this final stage are sent into another service such as working as medical alert dogs. Raisers generally receive another puppy only weeks after their last dog is sent into formal training.

“The hardest part is giving him back,” Clark said. “A piece of your heart goes with him. But then when they become a guide or a medical alert dog or whatever it is that they’ll be, it makes your heart swell even more because you’re so proud of them.”