Leading the way
For trainer Kaitlin Cherney, the best part about working for Guide Dogs for the Blind is when a match is finally formed between a dog and a client.
Through almost two years of work, which sees puppies travel across the country and go through meticulous step-by-step training, it all culminates with changing someone's life for the better.
"It's a special moment because you get to see the dogs come full circle," Cherney said. "You get to see how they interact with the clients and the confidence grow between the pair."
Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has a campus based in Boring, is a nonprofit organization that has trained and paired guide dogs to people in need for more than 70 years. The group has become a cherished part of East Multnomah County, as the trainers and dogs-in-training are common sights for anyone who drives through downtown Gresham.
"We are very appreciative of our community and are thankful for everyone's support," said Cheryl Vincent, Guide Dog's director of training.
The dogs, which are trained in Boring, have already completed several steps in a long journey that ensures only the most capable are selected as guides.
Each year Guide Dogs welcomes about 800 puppies into the system. One, who now works with an employee at the Boring campus, began her long journey as a member of a litter of six. Forli — each litter of dogs is named using the same letter of the alphabet — is now 4 and a half and paired with Jake Koch, an outreach alumni representative with the nonprofit.
While Forli has become a shining example of a seeing-eye dog, successfully showing off her talent alongside Koch by running an obstacle course during an event in conjunction with the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and Gresham Breakfast Lions Club in June, the eventual outcome was uncertain when she was born.
Only puppies that grow up to be confident, trustworthy and skilled are paired with someone who is visually impaired. It is a lengthy and intensive training program that sees a majority of the dogs go through a career change — some become a different kind of service dog, while others go live with families looking for a dog.
At the California campus where Forli was born, the black Labrador's socialization began at an early age. She was introduced to the world by both staff and puppy-socialization volunteers, exposing her to new sights, sounds and situations. While she played with her fellow puppies, she began learning how to be a guide dog. Ten weeks later, she traveled to College Station, Texas, to be raised in a puppy house, a program run by volunteers who spend about a year working to teach the dogs good manners and exposing them to all sorts of situations.
"It was a big transition for Forli," Koch said. "We want (the puppy raisers) to expose the dogs to as much as possible."
The process of being a puppy raiser is rewarding, but can be difficult for those volunteering. The bond they form with dogs like Forli have to be broken after a year to make way for the next stage of training. Guide Dogs works with the puppy raisers, who often join local clubs to share ideas and information, and invites them to the eventual graduation ceremonies where the dogs are paired with their human partners.
Finally, Forli was placed onto a "puppy truck" that collected her fellow dogs, most about 18 months old, and brought them to Boring for the final part of their training.
Cherney, who has been working for Guide Dogs for almost four years, has a dual purpose with the organization. She works with the dogs to teach them the basics of leading, while also supporting the clients to prepare for their eventual match.
When the puppy truck pulls into the Boring campus, the dogs are placed into 12-week training cycles. The trainers work in two- and three-person teams, each responsible for four dogs at a time.
The first week at the Boring campus is focused on basic obedience. The best guide dogs are able to ignore tempting distractions like squirrels or fellow canines. The trainers instill good foundational behaviors. By the second week, formal training begins, which is when the dogs begin their field work in Gresham. That includes learning to pull in a harness, stop at elevation changes, walk in a straight line and navigate around obstacles.
The key to training is a clicker method, which reinforces positive behavior. When the dog does something that a trainer wants, a click is made with a small device, followed by a treat. The sound bridges the gap between the behavior and reward.
"Its beneficial because it gives the dog good feedback," Cherney said.
Eventually the trainers work in pairs of two — one blindfolded handling the dog, and a spotter for safety. The idea is to remove any unintentional biases being introduced by the sighted trainers.
"As sighted trainers, we sometimes unintentionally are cuing the dogs," Cherney said. "With the blindfold, we can make sure the dog is ready."
During the training, the dogs are put through evaluations and tests to make sure they are on track. If one starts to lag behind, they are placed on a different timetable to see if a little extra work can make a difference.
By the time they come to Oregon, only about 60 percent of the dogs make it through. The hang-ups depend on the individual canine, but career changes are part of the process. The most difficult ones for Cherney are medically related issues, flagged by the veterinarians housed on-site at the Boring campus.
"Those are the most unfortunate, because you put in a lot of time and build a relationship with the dog," she said.
When the Guide Dogs staff come together to figure out potential matches, they already know about the clients. They gather information on their lifestyle, home environment, hobbies, work, how fast they walk and many other details to figure out exactly what type of dog would pair well.
The dogs that make it through the training have different temperaments, and don't always work well with certain individuals. But the trainers who have spent several months working with them begin formulating potential pairs before the clients ever step foot on campus.
Koch and Forli connected quickly when they went through the process. He learned the best way to communicate with his new guide dog was with treats, as Forli is highly motivated by food.
"You can teach your dog to do some really amazing things to enhance your life," Koch said.
One of his favorites is the find-the-counter command, because it's a useful task in many places like coffee shops, businesses, hotels and bars.
The first morning in Boring for the clients — who stay on-site in dorm rooms and eat meals by a chef whom Koch said does a masterful job — is filled with an orientation and working with an empty harness to practice the basic skills. By that afternoon, they are brought their dog.
Some of the clients who come to be paired have worked with a guide dog before, so they simply have to get used to the quirks of their new partner. Others have never walked with a dog before, and need a little more time getting used to the basics.
Being paired with a guide dog can be a freeing experience for a person used to getting around with a long cane.
"You have to let go of the control you are used to having," Cherney said. "You have to trust the dog."
For Koch, that trust means a freedom he wouldn't have without his guide dog.
"There is nothing better than going outside with my dog and experiencing the sights and smells," Koch said, reaching down to pet Forli. "And it's just the two of us making it happen."
What: Guide Dogs for the Blind
Where: 32901 S.E. Kelso Road, Boring