Thursday, October 31, 2013

Raising Rue - My Speech at GDB Graduation

By: Amber May

My experience raising Rue was enlightening to say the least. From the first day I picked her up here at GDB her instinct has always been to listen and watch. My little Rue was never the most outgoing puppy in our club, but she was quite the firecracker at home. Perpetually instigating trouble between the other dogs in our household. However, I don’t feel like there’s much need to tell you more about her personality. Many of you already know how these dogs are so wonderful and full of life and love, but Rue is my fourth puppy that I’ve raised and I think I’m finally starting to see a glimpse of the bigger picture here.

Rue licks Amber's face

Spending most of my time isolated with Rue in my apartment I realized that she actually makes me a better person. Still to this day I think of her when I’m angry and scared or when I don’t know what to do and just seeing her face or filling my hands with her fur brings me back to a place of peace inside that I can’t achieve on my own. Reality makes us humans move so fast and most of the time our brains are only half present. Having a guide dog puppy makes you slow down and literally smell the flowers sometimes. Yet there’s something even more special in all this, GDB has given me the tools to give genuine meaning to a dog’s life. The way they look at us makes you feel like a hero, but these dogs are the real heroes here. They don’t take love and affection for granted.

Rue on stage at graduation with her new handler and Amber next to them

There is so much joy in raising these puppies. All my life I’ve just wanted to make a difference and with a puppy like Rue I can be the difference, so I have to thank Guide Dogs, and my club, and my family for everything they’ve done to allow me to continue raising puppies wherever I may be in my life.

Friday, October 25, 2013

My Week 2 Experience of the Two Week Training Program at GDB!

By: Jane Neglia, GDB Outreach Manager

I forgot to mention in my previous post that one night during my first week of training, a yoga class was offered and it was fabulous! The stretching felt so good after all the walking we had been doing.  Susanne, the yoga instructor is also amazing at describing the poses verbally. On Sunday evening, massages were offered, $1 per minute, and it was the most amazing massage I have ever had!  This got me all ready and loosened up for week number two. The only down side of my massage was that I thought the massage therapist was totally blind, so I decided to just wear my PJ’s, well he was totally sighted, and what a sight I was in my plaid flannel pajama bottoms and long sleeve T!
This is the week where I think all the fun stuff happens, we get free access to the play paddocks so we can cut loose with our dogs, we get to go on escalators if we choose, ride the buses and trains, and we work more customized routes which are meant to simulate our home environments. We also worked with the dog booties on; I love the "clop, clop, clop" sound of their shoes when walking around! I chose to work a route over to the mall which is across the street from GDB, and I also learned an exercise route through a neighborhood that is also across from GDB. My classmate wanted more exposure to busy intersections, buses, and trains, so she and Carol the instructor would go off and work those areas. Another student in class lives in a busy urban city, so she and her trainer spent several days in a row working in the beautiful city of San Francisco.
Throughout this time, we also got all of our grooming kits and Carol went over brushing, teeth brushing, and ear cleaning. We also received our Heartgard and Frontline which of course is provided FREE of charge to you for the life of your dog, but now it is even easier because all you have to do is call the support center and it will be mailed directly to your house! We then learned “fun things about our dogs,” visited the vet clinic and received the health history on our dogs, and took our group class and individual ID photos. Some people in class even began receiving calls from their puppy raisers, and I think they all made it to graduation, so that is exciting! Those of us who had been through the four week training program in the past or even the three week training were questioning how we did it? We were all so tired, but energized at the same time! Not to mention I know that I was carrying around at least five extra pounds from all the yummy food!

If I had to highlight some things about my two week training and the New Student Residence, here is what I would say, and in no particular order:
  •  There is still down time (much needed), but a lot more one-on-one time with your instructor!
  •  Training staff seems more relaxed and easy going, they don’t seemed rushed
  •  The food rewards really makes a huge difference in the work my guide dog would do, it kept him engaged and motivated!!
  •  Traveling around in mini vans is much more efficient, and again the one-on-one time with the instructor and the one other student is great!
  •  Having access to the relieving patio directly out your own door is fabulous - there is still a relieving schedule, but it is a bit more flexible.
  •  The food of course!
  •  The nursing staff is awesome and so supportive.
  •  Having my own room was really nice, and the coffee pot in the room was great, thanks Theresa!
  •  Meeting new people from around the country.
  •  As a re-train, watching those getting their first dog and the emotions involved with this is priceless.
  •  The adult learning approach is awesome.
  •  Instructors were constantly checking in with me to see how things were going, positives/negatives, and coming up with solutions if need be. 
  •  Such a supportive, energetic, and encouraging training staff - it is so obvious that they love what they do, thank you!
I know there are still a lot of people out there skeptical about this two week training approach, especially for those getting their first dog. Some of the main reasons GDB was able to shorten the time is because of the 2:1 student instructor ratio, using mini vans for transportation, and the class lectures being provided ahead of time. If anything you are getting much more one-on-one hands-on instruction in the two weeks than you ever did in the four or three week program, and I went through both of these. Because of this, the instructors are much more thorough and a lot more material can be covered. Not to mention the customization of the program; getting to work in areas that are going to be most appropriate to you in your particular home environment. 
If you have any questions or would like to speak to me directly, you can call me at 800-295-4050 Ext. 4176 or email me at - I would be happy to chat with you any time!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Week 1 Experience of the Two Week Training Program at GDB!

By: Jane Neglia, GDB Outreach Manager

With a heavy heart, I said good-bye to my active guide Anja on Sunday September 22nd and checked into the new Student Residence at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael for my two week training experience. I had very mixed emotions about leaving Anja for these two weeks, but I knew she would be in good hands at home with my fiancĂ© Wayne and our pet dog Belle.

If you haven’t visited our new Student Residence yet, you are in for a real treat. It just opened in May of this year, and it is a beautiful space. Each student has his/her own room with all the comforts of home: television, coffee pot, small refrigerator, recliner, a large private bathroom, and your own back door that leads to a small patio with table and chairs. You’re also connected directly to the relieving patio - we no longer have to gather at the lounge door and line up one at a time around the relieving circle, woop woop! Beyond the relieving patio are three private gated paddocks to the Student Residence for play time with your new guide dog! The residence also has a workout room, laundry facilities, a student lounge with a large TV, bean bag chairs and vending machines for those late night munchies! There is an indoor grooming room, two wet rooms for those rainy days, and a private student patio with a Jacuzzi tub! The dining room has floor to ceiling windows, and a wonderful kitchen staff, and of course very delicious meals and desserts, I am sure to gain a few pounds!

Sunday was just a settling in day, we were all oriented to our private rooms individually, and then to the Student Residence as a group. We also were able to get acquainted with one another – what a fun group of people! There are three people here for their first guide dog, and three for their successor dog. After dinner and a few more housekeeping items, it was off to bed early with excitement and anticipation in our hearts and minds, as we will all be getting our dogs tomorrow afternoon! What will it be? What is his/her name? There have been a lot of recent changes at GDB, but some things will always remain the same, such as the emotional impact dog day has on all of us! Even for myself who is getting a new dog only for these two weeks, knowing at the end I will have to say good-bye, I couldn’t wait to meet my new partner!

Monday morning we met our instructor team – we were each paired up with one other student and one instructor for the next two weeks. With the 2:1 instructor/student ratio, I was sure to receive a lot of one on one time! We also travel from location to location in mini vans, just the three of us, which allows for more time for discussions about our routes, trouble-shooting, handling techniques, etc. We spent the morning learning the basic guide dog work commands, foot and body positioning, left and right turns, hand gestures, healing position, leash gestures, leash cues, and leash corrections. I also learned a new technique called the “time-out” technique. You would pull your dog close to your side and hold the leash close to the collar. You stand still and quiet for 10 seconds. The dog does not receive any feedback from you during this time, and it also allows you to take a breath and re-focus.

I was paired up with a first time guide dog user, and it was wonderful to watch her learn and absorb all of this new information. This also helped reinforce everything for me, as I would be working with a brand new dog to me. I would also have to be careful not to fall into my old habits that I have with my current guide. Our instructor Carol was so patient and thorough in her instruction, and because she only had the two of us to work with, we had a lot of time, and weren’t rushed through the information. Finally, we explored the harness and practiced putting it on and taking it off of “Wheeler”, the pretend guide dog on wheels. Then we went for Juno walks around the campus (where the instructor acts as the guide dog) so Carol could get one last feel for our pace, to ensure that they made the right dog match for us. We practiced our turns, leash work, and the time-out technique. Dog time was quickly approaching, first lunch and then we get to hear about and meet our new partners!

After lunch we all gathered in one of the resource rooms and learned about our new dogs. There were some tears of joy, and a lot of “oohs” and “ahhs” when they read all the names. To protect the innocent, I am not able to share the name of the dog I received, but let’s just say he is an adorable black lab with really big paws! When Carol brought him to my room, he was excited and playful. She left us to get acquainted, and as I predicted, I fell in love! The rest of the day was spent getting to know our new partners, learning to walk and heel our dog, positioning them at the dining table, feeding, watering, and relieving them.

The next couple of days were spent learning a route designed by our instructor in downtown San Rafael. This was a purposeful route with a destination, ours being a coffee shop where we would sit for about 10 minutes after the route and talk about issues/challenges we encountered, what worked well, what needed to be improved, etc. Then we would work the second half of the route back to the downtown lounge. Working to learn this one particular route successfully with my guide dog in the beginning of training helped to establish trust and confidence in one another. This is why GDB requires three established routes in your home area, so that you have this time when you get home to work these routes and establish this bond and trust with your new partner.

The positive reinforcement of food rewards has been a part of GDB’s philosophy for quite some time, but they have upped the ante since I received my current guid Anja in 2009. Food is such a powerful tool in motivating your dog to work and work well. Food was used heavily this first week, rewarding all good obedience type behavior and successful guide work behaviors: stopping at elevation changes, avoiding obstacles, ignoring distractions, stopping at doorways, etc. Because my dog was rewarded so heavily with food, a primary reinforcer, I had his focus completely on me very early on in our training process. In fact, while sitting in our destination coffee shop the first day, a couple commented on how attentive he was to me, just staring up at me. If food is what will motivate my dog to do his job and do it well, I am going to continue to use food to keep him motivated. Another thing I found interesting is that when his primary trainers would come into the room, there was little reaction from him. He remained focused on me, and our bond was only certain to strengthen as time went on!

As part of GDB’s adult learning approach to training, all of the lecture material that pertains to class time and going home with your guide dog is provided prior to arriving on campus and is also available on our website This allows you to read and study the information ahead of time so that when you get to class, you are familiar with what you will be learning, and it will always be available for review once you get home. This will enhance the learning process and will allow for more time working with your new guide dog, and less time sitting in the classroom having a lecture about the various topics. Discussion questions are part of the information provided and group discussions are held daily around these questions, which I also found to be very helpful.

As the first week was wrapping up, we made our way into downtown San Francisco to work some busier intersections and more crowded sidewalks. Learning the set route in San Rafael first, gave me and my guide dog the confidence to work the busier streets in the city together – he was awesome! I also was able to watch the relationship grow between the student I was paired up with who was working with her first guide. It was amazing to watch their bond develop and her trust develop in her new partner.

In my final post I will discuss the second week of training where we worked more customized routes. Because I live here, I am a bit spoiled in that I get to practice a route that I will actually walk regularly! Stay tuned…

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alumni Connections: GDB Alumni Chapters

By: Melissa Hudson, Chapter Coordinator

One of the many ways Guide Dogs for the Blind sets itself apart, is our amazing Alumni Association! Within our Alumni Association, we have fabulous, unique and varied Alumni Chapters, just like all of our grads! Joining an Alumni Chapter is a great way to connect with fellow guide dog handlers, puppy raisers and your community at large. Yes, GDB Alumni Chapters are open to grads, puppy raisers, community members, friends and family too!

Here is a list of our geographically-based chapters:

Colorado Alumni Chapter of GDB
The Foggy Doggies (Northern California)
GDB Handlers of the Northeast
Great White North GDB Alumni Chapter (Canada)
Guide Dog Handlers of the Midwest (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana & Michigan)
Guide Dog Teams of Orange County (Southern California)
North State Guide Dog Handlers (Chico, CA)
Oklahoma City GDB Alumni Chapter
Reigning Canines (Portland, OR)
River City Guide Dog Users (Sacramento, CA)
San Diego Alumni Chapter (Southern California)
Sunshine Guide Dog Teams (Florida)
Big Star Dawgs (Texas)
The Greatest Paws on Earth (Utah)
Washington State GDB Alumni
Windy City Chapter (Chicago, IL)

Now, here's a list of our interest-based Alumni Chapters:

GDB Cruisers (people who love traveling via cruises)
GDB Tech Dogs (people interested in assistive technology)
Guide Dog Handlers All Ways (graduates with multiple disabilities)
Talking Dogs Alumni Chapter (people involved in the Speakers Bureau)

Here's a list of Alumni Chapters that are no longer active but, are seeking new members to help re-establish them (We need your help!):

GDB Los Angeles Guide Dogs Alumni Chapter
Greater Toronto GDB Alumni Chapter
Montana Guide Dog Handlers
Montreal Chapter

As you can tell, we have quite a fun and diverse group of Alumni Chapters! All of our Alumni Chapters are always looking for new members, so why not join one, help re-establish one or start a new one! If that sounds interesting to you, please email me directly at and I'll get you started on the path to being connected!

Each Alumni Chapter has its own meeting schedule and dynamics, whether the meetings are via conference call, in person or online. That's what's so great about our Alumni Chapters - their flexibility, love for each other and GDB! In future blog posts, we'll spotlight one of our amazing Alumni Chapters to give you a better insight, so keep checking in!

Friday, October 4, 2013

How to Work the System When Things Don't Go Quite Right with Access

By: Joe Landau, GDB graduate

In 2008 I became blind as a result of an auto accident. I suffer from a peripheral loss of vision and I am legally blind. While recovering in the hospital my niece was brilliant enough to contact Guide dogs for the Blind (GDB) to place me on a waiting list for a guide dog. Six months later, and after receiving mobility training at the Braille Institute, I arrived home with my guide dog Balsam.

Balsam is a wonderful companion and allows me to travel safely and maintain an active, independent life. In the five years Balsam and I have been a team, I rarely have encountered access issues as a result of using a guide dog. In all cases I ask for a manager and at most present an ID which shows that Balsam is a certified guide dog and we are on our way - that was until March of this year.

My partner and I decided to dine at a restaurant in Hollywood before seeing a play. A waitress greeted us at the door seated us at a table and gave us menus. A minute later she returned to say that her manager asked that we leave, so I asked to speak with the manager. The manager said that my guide dog might upset his other customers. Things went downhill from there and we left to find another place to eat. Sure I was upset and let the manager know it, but we were hungry and had plans so we left to find another restaurant.

The following week I decided to actually test what recourse I had with the restaurant owner that denied us service. Surely the disability laws should cover the situation, but how in real life does a valid claim get processed and what options are available? This is what I found:
I contacted GDB, very helpful, and among the options available, they explained I could file a grievance in writing with the Justice Department.  I wrote a short narrative of that happened and mailed it to the Justice Department in Washington D.C. Six months later I received a large packet of information including a complete copy of the ADA law. The Justice Department suggested mediation, with a third party, as long as I could convince the restaurant to participate.  If the restaurant was not willing to participate, my recourse would be to find a lawyer and sue. The Justice Department has a program in which they will pay for the mediation up to a maximum number of hours (current costs for mediation start under $1,000.00 and are based on time used). 

Meanwhile, while waiting for the justice department to respond to my letter, I checked the internet for lawyers who handle discrimination cases. I found that most listed on the web defend employers, or in this case the restaurant.  After a few phone calls I ended up with a recommendation for an attorney that would represent me. The firm’s name is Metz and Harrison LLP located in El Segundo, CA. Mr. Metz requested I send them a written recap of what occurred and offered to take my case. As long as I was successful in my lawsuit, the owners of the restaurant would pay for my attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as damages that are available to me as a victim of disability discrimination. So instead of waiting for the Justice Department material to arrive, I decided to be more proactive and signed an agreement with Metz & Harrison LLP and they filed suit in Federal Court.

Now this is where the law gets interesting. The law was written to encourage civil rights lawyers to take on discrimination cases by allowing for damages and fee-shifting provisions, which ultimately requires the owners and operators to pay for my, (the plaintiff’s) attorneys’ fees and costs.
California law provides for a minimum of $4,000 for each occurrence of discrimination, which, in my case, included the denial of service. However, there is no cap on attorneys’ fees, except as ultimately awarded by a court. As we all know, lawyers are expensive and the more the restaurant owner wanted to drag this out the higher both his and my attorneys’ fees would climb. Since all the attorneys’ fees would have to be paid by the restaurant it would have been in the owner’s best interest to settle quickly. The parties agreed to mediation with a mediator who was also a retired judge. The mediation fee of about $800.00 was split between the two parties since it was outside of the Justice Department's mediation program. Mediation is quite common in these types of cases and avoids the wait and expense of actually going to trial. We ended up settling in mediation and the restaurant will end up paying $21,000 for my attorneys’ fees and damages for not allowing me access. The amount is to be paid over a period of two years. If for some reason the restaurant fails to make payments on time, the amount of the settlement will increase to $30,000.00.  I’m not sure what the restaurant paid to his attorney for representation as their attorney stated that he was working for free as a favor to the restaurant owner. In addition, the owner was also required to post signs indicating that service animals were allowed and provide on-going staff training in regard to the law and serving people with disabilities. 

It’s not fun to be discriminated against. If the owner of the restaurant would have listened to reason, he could have saved a lot of money. In fact, he passed up the opportunity to make $100.00 by serving us dinner.   If you find yourself in a situation where you feel you have been discriminated against because of a disability and can’t find a solution with the party doing the discriminating, you may want to explore what legal remedies are available to you either through the Justice Department or through a civil rights lawyer.