Contributed by puppy raiser Dana Pardee
Dana and Guide Dog puppy Amato
At the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to represent Guide Dogs for the Blind in Poland. I have been studying in Katowice, Poland since September and since the day I landed I have been researching the use of guide dogs in Poland. I came across the name of the only guide dog school located in Poland and from that moment on, I was anxious to meet with them! So, on February 1st en route from Berlin back to the south of Poland, I stopped in Poznań and met with the director, two trainers, and a member of the board of directors of Fundacja na rzecz Osób Niewidomych Labrador-Pies Przewodnik.
Their program is very young; it was only recognized as a non-profit organization for the public advantage in 2004. They currectly have 10 puppies in training with volunteer puppy raisers (mainly located in Poznań). Puppies are purchased from breeders at around 7-8 weeks of age (after being assessed by trainers) and are placed with a family. They are then raised by that family until they are around 14-18 months of age. However, the process of raising is different then it is in the US, mainly because Poland does not have the same access laws for dogs in training. When talking with the trainers, they said this happened to be one of the most challenging aspects. People in Poland just do not have the same understanding of a “service dog” as they do in the US. Therefore, people are less willing to allow access for the dogs.
In 2003, to gain support for the program, the foundation created an initiative in which volunteers visited businesses throughout Poland to educate employers and to distribute stickers that would allow raisers to recognize the shop as being guide dog friendly. This created much more access for the puppies, but it was mainly centralized in the Poznań area. New legislation and access laws are being reviewed and written, so the foundation is eagerly awaiting their approval. These new laws have been found to benefit the puppy raisers, but more importantly the trainers who take the dogs into public for the formal guide training.
When the dogs reach their formal traning, they are taken in by the trainer and taught various routes and the key aspects of guidework. The foundation works very closely with the Slovic guide dog school Vicvikova Skola Pre Vodiacich Psov UNSS. Trainers from Slovakia routinely travel to Poland to assess dogs and assist the Polish trainers. The foundation is also a member of the International Guide Dog Federation, so they are receiving assistance from many different schools. The foundation may be small, but they are very eager to learn from the larger organizations.
What I thought was going to be a quick meet-and-greet and some quality puppy time in fact turned into a business meeting in which I fielded questions about GDB’s programs. They asked questions concerning everything I could think of; from selection of the breeders and puppies, training techniques and phases, assessment, to how the potential guide dog users are screened. Thank God I pay attention at meetings and Fun Day presentations! I did my best to represent GDB and provide useful information. The foundation may be young, but they have already suffered their fare share of hardship and are trying to learn from their mistakes. The few people who are trying to keep the foundation alive through their volunteer efforts are truly passionate about what they are trying to achieve, and it was an honor to represent GDB and provide them with any little bit of help that I could.
This meeting also made me realize just how much work has gone into GDB to make it what it is today. I read the stories of Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson and their humble beginnings, yet it almost hard to imagine all the hardship and effort that they initially faced. But being able to see a guide dog school in the initial stages, trying to gain support and build their program really made me appreciate the program that I work for. We are a community that supports and encourages each other. I think as a community it is our duty to continually educate people, whether they be from the U.S. or Poland, about guide dogs and all the potential that they provide. I would also like to say thank you to all the members of GDB, past, present, and future, who have made our program so amazing. I hope that someday the passion and commitment that GDB has maintained for 58 years will continue and spread, perhaps all the way to Poland – and beyond.
To read more about the Polish Guide Dog Foundation, follow this link (don’t worry, it’s in English): http://www.fundacja.labrador.pl/informacje,lang=en