Guide dog graduation calls for lots of tissues
Walking across a stage at commencement is a defining moment for any graduate. It marks the end of formal learning and the beginning of applying what has been taught to life in the real world.
Graduating also is an emotional moment.
But in a cozy auditorium in Boring on Saturday, Jan. 28, Janetta and her five classmates weren't the ones passing around tissues to soak up tears. Instead, tissues were gripped by the humans in attendance. And it wasn't a diploma that passed between hands on stage. It was a leash - a symbolic exchange in ownership between a puppy raiser and the visually impaired recipient of a newly trained guide dog.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is the premier training facility for service dogs on the West Coast. The organization operates the Boring campus, as well as an 11-acre site in San Rafael, Calif. More than 10,000 teams of visually impaired people and their canine partners have graduated from training since the organization was incorporated in 1942.
Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Labrador retriever/golden retriever mixes are bred specifically in California for lives as guide dogs. At 8 weeks of age, the puppies are transported to nine western states, where they are taken in by families, whose sole job is to provide basic training and social integration.
'Our job is to housebreak them, teach them how to walk with a leash and how to have home manners,' said Michelle Youngman, a volunteer and puppy raiser. 'We also take them into every social situation possible. We take them to schools, on MAX, any situation where they can learn to be a good partner for a blind person.'
Between 15 and 18 months of age, the puppies return to the Guide Dog school for more intense training. They receive veterinary care and are treated like rock stars, living in kennels with heated floors. And while volunteers direct playtime and 'love on' the dogs, the puppies' daily purpose is to learn the skills necessary to provide sight for someone who lacks it.
'To see what the formal trainers do is phenomenal,' said Michelle Davis, community relations officer for Guide Dogs for the Blind. 'They can get into the dog's head and teach them the most amazing things. You can see a transformation. They will be energetic and friendly like a regular dog, but the minute the trainer puts the harness on, they become very focused. That's their signal that they're working.'
Janetta, a female black Labrador retriever with soulful brown eyes, was raised by Stefanie Shuflin of Midway, Utah. Shuflin traveled to Boring with her daughters to meet 53-year-old Tracy Whiting, Janetta's new partner, and be present for the graduation ceremony.
The reunion of the family and puppy is emotional as well, Shuflin said, because it's the first time the two have seen each other in several months.
'She jumped and was naughty and did all those things she's not supposed to do,' Shuflin said, laughing. 'It's always super hard to say goodbye, but meeting Tracy makes it all worthwhile. I think service dogs are amazing. To see them helping someone is incredible.'
Janetta is the second guide dog for Whiting, who lost her sight to Retinitis Pigmintosa by age 29. The Nacogdoches, Texas, resident and mother of two young boys and an adult daughter had spent two years without a four-legged companion, following the death of her beloved Amber in 2009.
Whiting began the four-month application process with Guide Dogs for the Blind last spring. She was notified in October that she was accepted for the January class and flew to Oregon for two weeks of bonding and training on the Boring campus with Janetta.
'I used a cane when I didn't have a dog,' she said. 'It was a slow walk. But with a dog, it's so freeing. I can put the harness on and just go. And for a woman traveling around, it takes a lot of the fear out of getting around.'
Guide dogs are matched to their new owners, based upon the individual's personality and physical needs. Whiting, for example, walks with a quick gait. Janetta's lean build and long legs make it easier for the animal to keep up and take the lead.
But the level of training given Janetta, Whiting said, instilled an immediate confidence between the pair and made them fast friends.
'They set up distractions for me and Janetta, so we would know what to do and how to get around them,' Whiting said. '(Trainers) really think of everything, so when we leave, we're ready to go home with the dog. (Guide Dogs) set you up for success.'
Whiting, an admitted 'cryer,' wiped her eyes a time or two during Saturday's graduation ceremony. She thanked her husband of 34 years, George, for his support in acquiring Janetta and Shuflin for providing a nurturing early environment for her companion.
But as Whiting and Janetta left the stage, it was clear this was a partnership that will take both of them further in life than simply down the sidewalk.
ABOUT GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND
Guide Dogs for the Blind does more than simply establish relationships between the visually impaired and their canine partners. It offers continual support to graduates (at no charge) for as long as alumni are able to use a guide dog. This can include retraining, personalized in-home training and follow-up visits and veterinary resources.
But not all dogs are destined to be guide dogs. Those who don't meet the necessary requirements are called career-change dogs and often find themselves as canine buddies for visually impaired children or as search and rescue dogs. Others are adopted as family pets.
Community puppy clubs provide support for families who raise the puppies. Regular meetings address training difficulties, skill levels and group outings. The Gresham Puppy Club meets twice a month. For information, call Jill Dayton at 503-312-9591.
Volunteers are the heart and soul of the guide dog program, Davis said, from puppy raisers to those who just enjoy being around animals. For more information or to volunteer, call Guide Dogs for the Blind at 503-668-2100.