Thursday, April 30, 2009

Community Support through a Calamitous Season

Lauren RossBy Lauren Ross, Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, Midwest Field Manager

Spring has arrived in the Midwest, although we're all still wearing hats and mittens. A final snowstorm sometime in April is a tradition that one expects and endures in the Heartland. Nevertheless, it's incredibly exciting when the sun coaxes the first purple crocuses through thawing soil at the end of March, signaling the final days of what has been a very rough winter for GDB teams in this area.

Navigating over piles of snow and sheets of ice, our teams have struggled through the past several months with perseverance, creativity and good humor…and often with the support of friends, family and community (and field managers, of course!). Community support comes in many forms: cities and neighborhoods assist in our teams' independence and safe travel through diligent maintenance of sidewalks and streets during endless periods of snow accumulation. City employees like bus drivers also play a crucial role through proper etiquette when interacting with customers who are blind, and even – in certain situations - advocating on behalf of those riders.

Susan Wilkening, of Harvard, Illinois, with black female cross "Mariko," must catch the bus each morning to travel to work. Snowfall in Harvard has set records this year; halfway through winter, Sue and her family had not been able to keep up with shoveling. Every day Sue had to struggle through an ever-growing drift at the end of her driveway to gain access to her daily route. One snowy evening, Sue's bus driver noticed the maintenance crew at nearby Mercy Harvard Hospital out clearing their parking lot with the snow plow. He stopped to ask the crew if – since the hospital is just across the street – it would be possible for them to swing by Sue's house and clear off the accumulated pile. The maintenance workers were happy to oblige. And then they took it a step further: every time it snowed the plow swung over to Sue's driveway, keeping her route access completely clear for the remainder of the winter months. For this ongoing support of one of our graduates, I will be presenting a GDB certificate of appreciation to Mercy Harvard hospital on April 1st.

Of course, in this story the thoughtfulness of Sue's bus driver stands out as commendable. Drivers on this route vary, though, and some are less considerate than others. In fact, Sue has had significant difficulties with a few of the drivers, so she put me in touch with the transit company. Early in March, I gave a presentation to the drivers of the Pace bus line in McHenry County, Illinois. The focus was on sensitivity and proper etiquette toward customers who are blind, including a section on service dogs and a brief discussion of other disabilities. Interactive devices - like low vision simulators and props to demonstrate high and low contrast - kept the audience engaged and interested, raising their awareness not only of ADA law and the correct way to interact in different scenarios with individuals who have disabilities, but also of the great variance in levels of vision and the danger in making assumptions about their customers' abilities and disabilities. The training was videotaped and will be used for future driver training at the transit company.

Although the wind still bites sharply through fleece jackets, we Midwestern GDB people are hopeful. With spring flowers come clear curbs to target, and the delightful idea that soon we will have eight straight months of ice-free bliss. We are thankful that we have had each other over the past five months; the warm strength of a community and a cozy act of kindness are never as apparent as during the frosty days of a northern Illinois winter. And we're fairly certain that the sunshine, grass and butterflies will get us through until the next one.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Career Change for Me

Angela and Bruceby Angela McCoy

When I describe Guide Dogs for the Blind program dogs that don't become Guide Dogs as "career change" dogs, my tour groups always chuckle. Somehow it's cute to think about dogs making career changes. But while I embark on my own career change, those words now represent an unknown and somewhat worrisome future. On tours I explain that career change dogs move on to lots of wonderful roles. By enrolling in San Francisco State's Orientation and Mobility program, I hope to do the same.

As a volunteer docent for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, I happily familiarize visitors with the awe-inspiring program. So when Sharon Kret, GDB Volunteer Department program specialist, told me a group of blind teenagers was on my tour, I was eager to share what the campus has to offer. I thought the group would also appreciate meeting Bruce, the retired breeder dog my husband and I look after. He passed a special docent dog training so he could accompany me on tours.

Driving to campus with Bruce proudly displaying his docent dog scarf, I had no idea that afternoon would start me thinking about a new career. Two other volunteers greeted us on campus. One was orientation and mobility specialist (O&M) Betsy Laflamme. As the teenagers arrived, I quickly realized how much I needed Betsy's help that day. Visually impaired visitors on my previous tours were with sighted friends or family members. Though these teenagers used canes, they were in unfamiliar territory. We also shared the even greater challenge of a language barrier.

The teenagers, along with their also blind teacher, Sabriye Tenberken, were visiting from Tibet where they attended Braille without Borders, a school for children who are blind. Since blindness is not as well accepted in Tibet, Sabriye courageously started the school to inspire and educate children otherwise isolated by their families. With Betsy's O&M support and translation from Sabriye I showed them around campus. While they learned about Guide Dogs from me, I became more intrigued by them. Their enthusiasm for life, learning and books made prying them out of the GDB library difficult. They also took several photos to preserve the memories of their visit. I learned they were here to promote a movie in which they climbed Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000-foot peak next to Mount Everest. Talk about inspiring. I doubt my ability to make that climb as a fully sighted person!

Incredibly smart, strong and protective of her students, Sabriye also amazed me. Bruce must have agreed. He went so far as to give her a big lick on the face. She was taken off guard and I did not blame her for politely refusing additional "kisses" from Bruce. Looking back I am equally embarrassed I did not ask before physically assisting the group. I took note as Betsy did this with confidence and ease.

That night at home, curious to learn more about the teenagers and their movie, I went online. The group left quite an impression but not until reading more did I realize how much. I stayed up until after midnight researching Sabriye, Braille without Borders and the movie chronicling their Lhakpa Ri climb -- Blindsight. I also found myself on San Francisco State's Orientation and Mobility Program webpage. I knew O&M training was required to get a Guide Dog, but it never occurred to me that I could make a career out of teaching those skills.

I began to realize that teaching people who are blind to navigate an environment using a white cane is like giving a gift of freedom. I could not think of a more fulfilling way to spend my working days. Now venturing on my new career path, I draw from my past experiences. Nine years as a corporate marketer have given me the unique ability to explain and simplify complicated concepts while my undergraduate work studying communication helps me understand and appreciate different perspectives and interaction styles. Lastly, volunteering at GDB has taught me that people who are blind are the same as everyone else. It just so happens they don't see as well. As an O&M specialist I hope to promote this concept and to help people who are visually impaired enjoy all that life has to offer.

To learn more about San Francisco State’s Orientation and Mobility Program, visit:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Our Recipe for Success

By Jennifer Bernstein-Lewis

There's no doubt about it – our recipe for success here at GDB is our volunteers! We LOVE 'em. So, this being National Volunteer Week and all, a big SHOUT OUT to all of you wonderful folks who share your time and talents with us. Thank you! Our pups gave out extra special licks and hugs this week to all the puppy handling volunteers.

Are you ready to celebrate? Check out this great cookie recipe we used to make a cookie bouquet for volunteers Bob and Elisabeth Scheibach. Mmmmm, good!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Day in the Life of… the Puppy Truck

Readers: This is part of a series of articles originally published in our Community Connections Newsletter. We are reprinting them here for your enjoyment. Click on the "A Day in the Life" label link to list the entire series (see Labels section, right hand side).

It’s me again, back again to update you about my life as a puppy here at Guide Dogs. My adventure this time around? The Puppy Truck!  Littleton, Colorado, here I come! 

More than half of us Guide Dog pups travel to our raisers via the Puppy Truck; my sister is bound for Oregon, and my brother gets to go to Arizona. That Puppy Truck – it certainly makes the rounds! In fact, it makes trips to eight western states: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In fact, the Puppy Truck makes an average of two trips per month, and is on the road for about seven for those trips. Between GDB’s two trucks, they travel more than 30,000 miles each year, and deliver hundreds of puppies to their raisers. The trucks also pick up dogs and return them to either of the GDB campuses (Oregon or California) for their formal guidework training.

To get ready for my Puppy Truck trip, I got my vaccinations and my last health checks. Anywhere from seven to more than thirty pups can travel in style on the Puppy Truck; I’m one of about 20. 

My buddies and I made our way to the Puppy Truck in a big gray plastic tub on wheels. Before loading us up, they checked all of our ears again (that’s at least twice just from the time we left the kennel, a short distance away!). I guess they want to make sure it’s me. Once at the truck, one of the drivers (was it Mick, Lee, Denny or Joe?) set me into a very comfy kennel, complete with shredded newspaper – just like the kennels on campus. I was excited to see some of my campus roommates and littermates are along for this trip as well. We were all set to have some fun!

Once we got moving, I started to experience so many new things! Riding in a vehicle is so different from anything I’d ever done before – you can feel bumps in the road, hear all kinds of new noises, and all of us puppies can make quite a racket. I wasn’t sure how long the ride was going to last… so after about the first hour, I got a bit sleepy and settled in for a nap.

Pups inside the puppy truck

Before I knew it, we were stopped. Was it time to eat, I wondered?? It sure was! We had finished our traveling for the day, so dinner time it was. I got a special diet for the trip, with a food added that will keep my tummy feeling good during the ride. In addition to dinner, we all got to run around outside in an exercise pen (nice chance to relieve after all that driving!). I played and played (empty plastic water bottles are fun toys!), and just had a ball. Plus – I could drink all the water I wanted. This traveling business isn’t so bad.

All that playing made me tired again! Thankfully, we were all loaded back into the truck to have a good night’s sleep. (And of course – another ear check! Yes – it’s still me!) With all of my buddies close by, we curled up nice and cozy and had a sound sleep.

During our stop, we were joined by a few big dogs. I wondered what they were doing with us, but learned that the big dogs were some of those dogs on a special “recall list” – meaning that they were heading back to one of the Guide Dog campuses for their formal guidework training! How exciting! Someday that will be me.

When morning arrived, I was eager to get out and play! Luckily, the exercise pens were set up for us pups again – yeah! I can’t wait until I’m a big dog like my new friends – they get out three times a day and get to walk on a leash (not like us little guys – we only get out twice!). Before we could go play – yep, you guessed it – another ear check (seriously, it’s still me!!). 

The puppy truck rolling down the highway

Once we were all on the road again, the time just breezed by. Before I knew it, it was midday, and we were stopping. I was just having a little snooze – I’m a bit sleepy, but if we were stopping for some more play time, I was ready! But no – they were coming just for me! I was next on the delivery list - I’m going to my new home! I got all dolled up with a new collar (I’m used to wearing one after all of my campus socialization), and with much pomp and circumstance got handed over to a new person - my puppy raiser! Finally!  

Bye-bye Puppy Truck! I’ll be looking forward to traveling with you again someday, but I’ve got a lot to learn and do in the meantime! 

A puppy meets its new puppy raiser

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Day in the Life of a GDB Field Service Manager

Emily SimoneBy Emily Simone, Field Manager for Central CA and Colorado

5:45 a.m. (Clovis, CA): Am awakened by the soft lick of Ava, my Ambassador dog, ready to start her day… and mine apparently!

6:00 a.m: Take a quick 3-mile run to get the blood pumping. Ava and my pet dog Trey will not tolerate a day off and their absolute favorite thing to do is drag my butt around the neighborhood.

7:00 a.m: After a hot shower, I grab a bagel and check my email and voice mail message from yesterday. Eeek! 8 voicemail messages! I hope to return them later today or first thing tomorrow--today is a busy day!

7:30 a.m: Pack up my paperwork, briefcase, harness, camera, phone and blindfold and Ava for an 8:00 home interview with a potential guide dog applicant.

7:50 a.m. (Fresno, CA): Arrive at the apartment complex of the applicant and drive around the neighborhood, checking out the environment--is it safe for a dog? What's the traffic like: quiet, busy? What condition are the sidewalks and curbs? What type of curbs? Are there destinations to walk to from this location or is it isolated?

8:00 – 11:45: I conduct a home interview with a first time applicant (to protect his privacy, I'll call him J). This interview takes a bit longer than usual, because J has a lot of questions. J is newly blind (just 2 years) and is still adjusting to sudden vision loss as a result of Glaucoma. He's such a nice gentleman and he's very anxious to become independent and not rely on his wife. He just completed comprehensive orientation and mobility (O&M) and living skills training through the Davidson Program at the Junior Blind of America in Southern CA. He was there for 9 months. He and his wife just moved to this new apartment in a nicer area of town. Unfortunately, J doesn't know the area very well and currently can only walk alone on one route--perhaps a 6-block distance. I assess his cane skills and note that he is a novice traveler, meaning he is cautious, but he is very safe. On the walk home, I let him work Ambassador dog Ava and he is thrilled by the experience. He actually tears up at the end of the walk and reports that he felt like he was flying and moved faster than he has in two years. He's more anxious than ever to get a dog. Unfortunately, I have to inform him that he will need to learn at least two more destination routes in his home area before we will be able to serve him. I put him in contact with a local O&M specialist so he can get a few training sessions to learn more routes. I explain that a dog needs a variety of routes to keep his skills sharp and prevent boredom. J understands. I tell him that he showed excellent potential as a guide dog handler and once he has learned his new area better I will revisit and help him with his goal of getting a guide dog. I'm very confident he will be successful and I look forward to seeing him again!

12:15 p.m. (Clovis, CA): I drop off Ava back at my house and grab a sandwich before heading out again!

1:30-2:30 p.m. (Visalia, CA): After an hour drive down highway 99, I arrive at the home of a guide dog graduate I'll call S. S has requested a direct follow-up visit to address some questions and challenges she's having. I've known S since she applied for her first guide dog 12 years ago; she's now married and a new mom! She just gave birth to her son and I'm excited to see how they're doing. S's current guide (her 2nd) is a lovely male black lab. He's a "seasoned" guide at 6 years old. We discuss how she can work him with her baby stroller and I take her out for a quick demo; her guide dog quickly adjusts. Back at the house, we discuss a plan to prevent him from scavenging food as her son gets older through use of a barrier to the kitchen. I congratulate S on her new son; he's adorable!

2:45 p.m. (Somewhere on hwy 99): On the drive back to Fresno, I receive an emergency phone message from a graduate in Colorado. He's calling to inform me his guide dog has severe diarrhea and vomiting and he is wondering what he should do. He's a brand new graduate and unfamiliar with this type of situation. I ask him some questions and determine that the previous night the dog had ingested part of a Kong toy. I advise he contact his vet and make an appointment promptly for an evaluation. He doesn't have a vet yet, as he just graduated last month. I tell him I'll contact another grad in his area to get a referral and will call him back. I make the call and get a referral for a vet hospital nearby that gives a discount for guide dogs. I call him back with the vet's contact info and he thanks me and states he'll call back with an update once he's at the clinic.

3:15 p.m. (Clovis, CA): I arrive back at my home office and sit down to return some phone calls when I receive another call from another local graduate who just graduated with a new dog 3 months ago. He reports he's at the Fresno State Campus and his dog is very poorly behaved around squirrels and can I help him this afternoon if possible? Of course I can! I get back in the van and head to Fresno State.

3:45-5:00 p.m. (Fresno State Campus): I arrive on campus and meet graduate B at the Disabled Services Center. B is 20 years old and a new graduate with his first guide dog. She's a spit-fire! She's active and quick and very confident with everything she does. I suggest we go for a walk around campus and look for squirrels. It doesn't take long and suddenly his dog is lunging toward a squirrel that crosses her path. I advise Bill to stop and immediately set down the handle and implement some obedience commands to regain his dog's attention. B admits he has been lax with his daily obedience training. I advise him that daily obedience training is critical for a new, young, assertive guide dog. I remind him that guide dogs are given a lot of authority when they're working. They're allowed to make decisions for the team's safety and this can create an overconfident dog. Obedience reminds the dog that the handler is always the leader of the team. She needs daily reminders or she will assume she's the leader of the team. I also advise that B consider using food rewards after he's regained his dog's attention to reinforce her good behavior. We proceed on and B is thrilled to note that now his guide is more focused and responsive when they pass the next squirrel. We make several more laps around campus until both B and I are satisfied that he has good control and she's shown improved behavior. B thanks me profusely for the prompt visit.

5:15 p.m. (somewhere in Fresno): While driving home, I receive a call from the Colorado graduate regarding his sick dog. His new vet took x-rays and didn't find any blockages in the dog's intestines, which is a GOOD THING! They sent him home with some antibiotics and directions to put his dog on a bland diet for a few days. The graduate was pleased to report that his dog did business #2 when he got home and 'evacuated' a piece of Kong. We discussed how to prevent this from happening in the future (no more Kong toys!). I thanked him for the update and asked him to contact his vet and us if further issues develop.

5:30-6:30 p.m. (Clovis, CA): I arrive home and write up reports from today's home interview and follow up visits. (I'm grateful to my mother for insisting I take typing class in high school!) My beloved husband calls me for dinner and I end my day. I'll return those voicemail messages first thing tomorrow morning!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Get along little doggies!

Puppy Truck driver Joe holds a yellow Lab puppy
Our puppy truck is hitting the open road today with a cargo of 35 puppies (35!!) destined for Colorado. That's a lot of puppy love! So we wish Puppy Storks Joe and Lee safe travels as they wind their way through the wild, wild West to deliver some sunshine to the Rockies… after all the Spring snow that's been pounding the Centennial State, the boundless energy of 35 pups is bound to bring some warmth!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The “Crumplette” Chronicles: Week Five

By Denise St. Jean and Tommy Cook, GDB Breeder Keepers for Crumpet

This week's video starts where last week's ended--the infamous kennel door that leads to the outside world. The puppies are now five weeks old and more active than the previous weeks.

They play and pounce on one another throughout the video. The puppies are on a regular diet at this time and we see them enjoy bowls of crunchy kibble.

The most memorable scene in this video is when mama Crumpet plays with two of her babies. Tails are a waggin' as Crumpet gracefully plays with her puppies until they latch onto her belly for some nourishment.

By the end of this week the puppies will be completely weaned. Next week the "crumplettes" will move into the puppy kennels and play yard area…to be continued.

Special thanks to:
Teri Balestrieri for shooting the video
Janine Rawlins for puppy wrangling
Entire Kennel Staff for taking excellent care of Crumpet and the "crumplettes"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The "Crumplette" Chronicles: Week Four

by Denise St. Jean and Tommy Cook, GDB Breeder Keepers for Crumpet

Catch up on previous Crumplette updates:
Crumplette See, Crumplette Do
Tea and Crumplettes

The furry batch of "crumplettes" are in a time of discovery during the fourth week of their lives. They continue to investigate their environment with their eyes and ears -- and especially their mouths.

This week's video shows the puppies nibbling on one another's ears and shoulders until something more interesting and new comes along to sink their teeth in –- a shoelace!

Next, they enjoy a supervised toy session and prance around with stuffed animals -- a red pig and blue bear, and then learn to set boundaries when they get too feisty with one another.

There is a cameo from momma Crumpet as she sun bathes in the outside kennel run. Is she daydreaming about her favorite sun spot in our backyard?

In the last scene, their kennel run door opens and they see the outside world for the VERY first time. Is this the start of a great new adventure? They're all very curious and tap a paw or two in the outside kennel run, but they then decide the world can wait -- this isn’t the week to take the "big step."

Special thanks to:
Teri Balestrieri for shooting the video, and sacrificing her shoelace
Kathy Fenger for puppy wrangling
Entire Kennel Staff for taking excellent care of Crumpet and the "crumplettes"

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trust Your Abilities

Ernie Jones pictured at graduation with guide RandyBy GDB Alum Ernie Jones, pictured with his Guide Dog Randy

I had no intention of walking in the snowy woodlands that morning without my Guide Dog--I feared I couldn't make it through the woods. The trail was hardly more than a narrow path cut through the grass, brush, and overhanging trees, and today several inches of snow covered the thick layer of dried grass and fallen leaves on the ground. But when my brother provided a pair of boots to keep my feet warm and dry, I gave in and agreed to walk with him.

Because this was a trip that I couldn't take my guide dog on, I had left my faithful friend at the guide dog training school--and I already felt lost without him. I couldn't use my cane for this walk either, as the trail was narrow, rough, and full of weeds and brush. Still, for some reason I knew I had to give this walk a try.

Burying my hands deep into my coat pockets to keep them warm, I followed my brother onto the trail. I felt my insides tighten as I feared what I knew was ahead. I didn't want to fail, but I didn't want to run into anything either; I had little faith in my ability to complete this walk.

Yet as I started down the trail I was surprised to find how easy it was to walk by sound only, and I began to relax. I did feel my feet walking into deeper snow a few times, suggesting I was off the main path, but I found it easy to adjust my stride and return to the path.

The trail wound around large trees that offered year-round shade to the carpet below. My brother pointed out several large evergreen trees, and I reached out to feel their frozen needles. My blindness was put aside and I began to enjoy this walk as faith that I could do it grew.

We walked into a ravine and carefully made our way before climbing a small hill. We headed across a wooden walkway that went out over marshy, swampy land and part of a lake, reaching a small island; I walked behind my brother with no fear of landing in the water. Back on the mainland, I realized I was enjoying this; I felt relaxed and no longer fearful.

Hardly had we reached the land before my brother warned me that two large loose dogs were approaching. Though their owners called them, neither dog paid them any attention as they checked us over.

When the dogs' owners neared us, I asked, "What kind of dogs do you have?"

The man responded that one dog was a yellow lab while the other was black and a cross between a pit bull and lab, adding that both dogs were very friendly.

Squatting down, I reached for one of the dogs, thinking of my Randy. The dog reacted just like most other labs do, with excitement and friendliness. I wanted to take hold of her and really hug her but resisted.

"Thank you," I told the man as I stood up. "You folks have a great day," and we continued on.

The two-mile walk took an hour and a half, during which time we heard one raven call but otherwise no birds: no ducks, geese or other water birds, not even any of the more typical snow birds, nor even a squirrel. The land was silent but for a few distant cars on the highway and the singing wind overhead. Though the wind made a roaring noise as it hurried through the frozen tree tops, we hardly felt it.

I returned to the house refreshed and exhilarated. Once more I had conquered my fear and proved I could still enjoy woodland walking.

Don't let anyone rob you of enjoying life. As a rule, life is what we make it.