Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gaya's Legacy: By Breeder Keeper Peter Michael Miller

In March, 2016, I participated in a quiet but very meaningful event. The story started 17 years ago, when a very red Golden Retriever puppy named Gaya was born at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA. At 8 weeks of age she was sent to Salem, Oregon to be raised by a married couple, both former teachers, who were volunteer puppy raisers. For the first year of her life, the couple exposed Gaya to noises, people, traffic, and the general business of life. All these experiences would be important if she were selected to be trained as a guide dog to help a person who is blind or visually impaired better deal with life experiences, especially mobility. Gaya was the 7th puppy from Guide Dogs that these volunteers took the time and responsibility to raise. They just received their 18th!

Gaya, a golden retriever, top, mentors a golden retriever puppy as they snuggle and play together with a pink toy.

Gaya did well during that first year, and her health, intelligence and personality were so outstanding that GDB selected her for its breeding program – dedicated for five years to mate with male breeders and produce more potential guide dogs. I was fortunate to be selected as her “breeder keeper” – a volunteer whose job it is to house and care for these special dogs when they are not at the GDB campus for breeding. I was extremely fortunate. Gaya and I formed a close bond – she was quiet but alert and intelligent; receptive to her environment but not at all disturbed by young children, noises, or strange settings. She was very affectionate, but not demanding – happy with everything that went on around her. She had some special skills – such as recognizing antagonistic circumstances between dogs or between dogs and children – and would run to separate the two parties and bark to explain her reasons for playing referee. Even more, she was extremely effective for 8 years working as a mentor dog at Guide Dogs, where she would go into an enclosure with 6-8 weeks old puppies, support them, correct them, and play with them for two hours each week. The puppies with the most challenging personalities were separately paired with Gaya to make sure they understood the rules of the group.

Gaya, a golden retriever, lies on the ground and looks up at the camera as she is surrounded by a group of six yellow lab puppies playing together.

Gaya died two years ago, leaving a legacy of 5 litters and 35 puppies. Some of her pups were also chosen to join the GDB breeding program, and she now has many grand-puppies, great grand-puppies, and great great grandpuppies. And here is where my story comes full circle. My friends, Gaya’s puppy raisers from Oregon, came to the GDB campus in Northern California and picked up one of those great great grand-puppies to raise – once again in the hopes of helping to change someone’s life. The puppy is a red female, sweet and affectionate and calm. I look forward to the next cycle in the legacy of my Gaya!

Friday, February 26, 2016

GDB Puppy Raising Youth Scholarship Recipient: Megan Iriving Essay

My experience raising guide dog puppies, especially my second puppy Harlow, has benefited others in my community. Harlow was a pretty easy puppy, other than her tendency to swallow socks whole. Harlow’s graduation was the first opportunity I had to meet a recipient of my hard work in raising guide dogs. Her new owner, Philip Doblado, shared with my family and I the difficult transition he had when deciding to get a guide dog. Philip lost his eyesight a few years before deciding to get a dog and was apprehensive about putting all of his trust into a dog, but his friend Linda Becker convinced him to give it a try. When Philip went to train at San Rafael, he passed up the first dog he was paired with because something didn’t feel right, so Harlow advanced in her training and was paired with Philip. The connection that Philip and Harlow had was instantaneous.

We were lucky enough to see Harlow a few times even after graduation. Once, while at the Braille Institute with our puppy club, we ran into Philip and Harlow taking some classes to help Philip adapt to everyday living with visual impairment. It was exciting to see how Harlow helped Philip to be more confident and enabled him to do things he never could without her by his side. We invited Philip and Harlow to our club’s annual holiday party and got to catch up with them, hearing about their travels and adventures they had faced during the year. Philip told us about the time that Harlow saved him from walking into an open manhole and once when he believes she protected him from potentially being robbed. He said it was the first and only time that he had heard Harlow bark. Sadly, Philip and Harlow moved to Texas, but they still keep in touch with us. Philip wrote to us to tell us of how Harlow once steered him around a rattlesnake. All of these stories really showed me how much my work can impact someone else positively.

Megan smiles proudly holding guide dog puppy Aiden (black and brindle Lab)

Another popular question I get is "How can you give them up?" and my answer is hard for people to understand. I always cry on the days leading up to and the nights after giving my dog back. It's not an easy thing to do, but having given eight dogs back to the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization, and having seen the extraordinary results of my hard work benefit someone else, I can definitely say that the benefits outweigh the heartache. The people who ask this question have never been to a guide dog graduation ceremony, and witnessed how these dogs completely change the life of the blind person. The relationships that guide dog users have with their dogs are bonds much stronger than any fully abled person could fathom. Getting a note in the mail from the owner of our second dog, Harlow, explaining how Harlow saved him from walking into an open manhole was one instance that helped me to truly understand the value of this program.

Through raising guide dogs I have learned things like confidence, patience, people skills, and communication, but most of all I have learned that I can’t control everything. Of the eight dogs I’ve given back to GDB, three have been career changed. I have learned that just because my dog “failed” doesn’t mean that I failed.

By participating in demos, working at club events, and leading 4-H meetings, I learned quite a bit about communication and people skills that I wouldn’t have learned without being involved in Guide Dogs.

Taking my dog out in public has helped me to develop a more outgoing and confident personality. I am used to people giving me funny looks or just staring at me because they've never seen someone with a dog in Target before. Each time I take a dog out with me, I have to answer questions. The typical ones have to do with the dog's age, name, and purpose. Those are easy questions. The questions that are a little more surprising are the ones along the lines of "So you're training a blind dog?" or "Are you totally blind or just partially blind?" Hearing these questions time after time has helped me to remember to be patient with people and that I really can teach someone something new every day.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Celebrating the Power of Partnerships: Sierra Hayes speech

GDB Grad Keith Gillard and Puppy Raiser Sierra Hayes sit side by side with Keith's guide Golden Retriever Newburg
Keith Gillard recently graduated from GDB. He was teamed with Golden Retriever, Newburg, who was raised by Sierra Hayes of College Station, Texas and the Harrison family of Tracy, California. Below is Sierra's touching and funny speech from the graduation ceremony.

Newburg is a firecracker of personality and there was never a dull moment. Seriously, he woofs in his sleep. 

From everything I have learned about Keith, I am so excited to see this new, quirky, dynamic team work together and see the emergent properties that come from their shenanigans as well as their hard work in raising awareness and making the world a more accessible place for everyone. 

I said goodbye to Newburg Oltrix Caspian  26 weeks ago and I've been dreaming about this day ever since. The only thing more unthinkable than him leaving me was him staying, and the only thing more impossible than him staying was him leaving. It has been a highlight of my life to be a part of something bigger than myself and know everyday I am somehow making a difference. While Newburg was with me, he made a difference in my community, and had a huge impact on my life. On a 40  acre campus with over 60,000 cute golden retriever puppy deprived college students, Newburg and I got a lot of attention. Sometimes we got to educate the public about service dogs, etiquette, or GDB and sometimes Newburg just lifted their broken spirits after a hard test. I could not be more honored to have raised and trained a silly, goofy, loving, hard working dog. 

Newburg: you have been by my side, inseparable. You were there next to me when the dawn broke, and you were right next to me at night in the library when I broke.  Since the day I met you, our souls have been woven together, time can change many things, but not that. I believe that you are who you surround yourself with, and I am beyond grateful your soul is the one that has colored outside the lines on the pages of my life. You are truly my best friend. You were there during so many of my college memories that wouldn't be the same without you. You made the good days better and the hard times easier-no matter when I am with you I'm never alone, and together we've taken on the world.
Before meeting you I was a very involved, high strung college student who saw my self worth only as what certifications and grades I had. You forced me to slow down. You taught me so much emotional intelligence, you read my every move. I had to practice being calm before tests so that you wouldn't thrive off my stress, little did you know I'd been struggling with panic attacks and severe test anxiety. You taught me that if you love someone you can't hold them back, even if that means getting left behind. I'm so happy you went searching for your own answers and found your destiny. 
Because of you I now value my worth by the amount of good I put into the world. 

You helped me discover so much about who I am, and who I want to be. Now it's finally time that you discover who you are. I hope you go into the world with Keith and do well, but more importantly go into the world and do good. 

William Shakespeare once said: "The meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life to is to give it away." How lucky am I that you were mine to receive and give.  

I love you.
Image Description Top:
GDB Grad Keith Gillard and Puppy Raiser Sierra Hayes sit side by side with Keith's guide Golden Retriever Newburg.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

New Disney-Pixar App: changing the way low vision and blind audiences enjoy movies

GDB Outreach Manager Jane Flower and Pixar Producer Paul Cichocki
Help us celebrate audio description, technology, and access for all. Guide Dogs for the Blind is thrilled to help Disney-Pixar celebrate its latest innovation in motion pictures. Today, with the in-home release of The Good Dinosaur, Disney-Pixar has fundamentally changed the movie-viewing experience for people who are blind. The Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA) app will include a free audio descriptive narration feature for low-vision and blind audiences for the Good Dinosaur as well as sixteen other Disney-Pixar titles.
Representatives from Guide Dogs for the Blind along with members from other leading blindness organizations, SF’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Blind Babies, have played a critical role in helping shape Disney-Pixar’s audio descriptive narration app. This ground-breaking app provides visually impaired audiences with the unique experience of being able to enjoy watching/listening to a film alongside their family and friends. Key visual elements of the film are inserted as an audio guide to help low-vision viewers get a more comprehensive understanding of the film.  Several hundred members of the Bay Area’s blindness community got a preview of the new technology in December at Pixar’s studios in Emeryville and it was a memorable and profound experience with tears and laughter present in equal measure.
Jane Flower, Outreach Manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind was one of those in tears as shared her thoughts with the audience at the White Canes, Red Carpet event. As she reflects back on that evening now, she says “I have always loved the "movie" experience, but that love has faded over the past few years as my vision has deteriorated.  I have watched movies at home with audio description, when available, but it isn't the same as sitting in the theatre with your family and friends, enjoying the movie in real time, or being able to talk about the movie in depth after viewing it.  The new Disney-Pixar audio description app. finally makes this dream a reality.  The app puts accessibility directly into my hands rather than hoping the theatre I am going to offers this accommodation.  When I watched the Good Dinosaur using this app, I cried for the first time in a very long time during a movie because I was no longer missing the emotions expressed on the characters faces, or the amazing cinematography.  It was all described in such beautiful detail.
With the soft launch of this app via the Good Dinosaur, Disney-Pixar hopes to gain valuable input from the blindness community that will further enhance the movie-going experience for people of all abilities. Disney-Pixar plans to make this a standard offering for all future titles. Please share any feedback you may have by reaching out to . We will aggregate any feedback we receive and share it with Disney-Pixar in the coming weeks.
Disney-Pixar has provided these tips on how to best enjoy their new app:
Consumers will need to have a Disney Movies Anywhere App downloaded onto an iPhone® or iPad® running iOS 7 or above in order to use this technology. Consumers can activate “Audio Description” on their iPhone® and iPad® by going to the “Access” section under “Settings” in the Disney Movies Anywhere App. Once activated, they can find supported titles through the Audio Descriptive (AD) button on the featured tab.
Once a film is chosen and playing on any separate platform the user can push the “Sync & Play Audio” button within the Disney Movies Anywhere App to initiate syncing and playback of the accompanying narration, creating an audio guide of the film. Now all families can enjoy Disney-Pixar movies together.
There are 16 Disney-Pixar feature films that are available via the DMA app: Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL•E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012), Monsters University (2013), Inside Out (2015), and The Good Dinosaur (2015).
For more information, please visit
 Photo Description top: GDB Outreach Manager Jane Flower and Pixar Producer Paul Cichocki along with Jane's yellow Lab/Golden cross Anja stand in front of the Good Dinosaur promotional signage at the White Canes, Red Carpet event at Pixar.