Tuesday, May 19, 2015

K9 Buddy Dogs and their Families

By: Kathy Featherstone, GDB Dog Placement Coordinator

For the past year, it has been my privilege to coordinate the K9 Buddy Program placements here at Guide Dogs for the Blind. This unique program was established more than a decade ago to partner youth who are visually impaired with a career change dog as a pet companion. I get to spend time with wonderful dogs and match them up with a recipient that may live as far away as Colorado. Unless it’s a local placement, one of our Community Field Representatives (CFRs) will do the home visit and bring the dog to the family when the time arrives. I live vicariously through photographs, emails, and phone calls pre and post adoption. All of our K9 Buddy families are so grateful to the puppy raisers for allowing them the gift of a career change dog with the capacity to enrich the life of their child, their family, and their communities. Katie, whose daughter received K9 Buddy Widget said, “This whole experience with Guide Dogs for the Blind has given us so much joy and hope. When we went to a Puppy Raising class we were overwhelmed at the care and willingness other people had in raising a guide dog puppy. We could not believe the K9 Buddy program was available to us at no cost. The gift of Widget is one that we will never be able to repay all of you for. Just know that whatever part you had in providing this dog for our family, you have made an incredible impact on our lives. We do not take it for granted for one moment and see this as a blessing we will cherish for a long time.”

Here are a few K9 Buddy families who wanted to share their story with all of us:

Bluebell, a four year-old retired guide dog is a calm, sweet natured female black Lab. She was matched with Claire, a young girl in Colorado and her family, consisting of older sister Stella and parents. As mom Marlo explains: “In April of 2014, we met Bluebell for the first time. We felt like we had waited forever for her to arrive. Bluebell makes our family so happy. Claire’s favorite thing about Bluebell is that she is soft, cuddly, cute, and sweet. Claire loves snuggling next to her to read books. Older sister Stella’s favorite thing about Bluebell is that she is playful and always happy. We love that Bluebell greets everyone in the morning. Bluebell walks with us to the bus stop every weekday morning and afternoon; our bus driver always gives her a treat. We love taking her on walks and watching her play in the snow. Even though we don’t think she has ever lived in a snowy place, she just can’t get enough of the snow! Bluebell sleeps calmly every night, well maybe not calmly because she snores. We are so happy that Bluebell is in our lives.”

Young Claire smiles sitting next to Bluebell (black Lab) in the woods with trees in the background.
Claire and Bluebell
Ella, a female Golden Retriever completed a portion of formal guide dog training and was then career changed. She is a very sweet, calm, sensitive-minded girl that loves to please her people and cuddle when the opportunity presents itself. Ella was matched with Sarah, a teenager from Colorado. Sarah’s parents and her younger siblings all wanted a dog in their life. Marianne, Sarah’s mom describes having a K9 Buddy companion: “Owning Ella has really been like adding another kid to our family! It is an adjustment to have another responsibility, but such a blessing to see the love and bonding between the kids and Ella. It is really touching as a mom to see children show love to an animal, and learn to love them by caring for them, and then see that animal show compassion in return! It has really given Sarah a friend that was much needed. Having Ella as Sarah’s K9 Buddy dog has really been so great for teaching Sarah the responsibilities and lifestyle of having a dog. I love that Ella will listen to me when no one else is up to paying attention to me. When I’m lonely, I can talk to her. I love to walk with her; she keeps me company when I go on walks at the park. We all LOVE her. If there is anything our whole family can agree on, it is that our dog is the best and deserves every bit of love we can give her. We LOVE that she is already trained so that all we do is continue to reinforce the training, we did not have to start from scratch. Even if we did, Ella would be more than worth it.”

Sarah and her sister pose with Ella (Golden Retriever) in their yard on the grass.
Sarah and Ella
Gia is a female Golden/Lab cross that also completed a portion of formal guide dog training. Gia is very affectionate, enjoys physical attention, a quiet lifestyle, and staying close to her favorite people. She was matched with Annabelle, an 8 year-old girl who lives in Marin County, CA. It was my pleasure to do the home visit and place Gia with the family. Annabelle says: “My favorite thing about Gia is that she is the cutest dog in the world. She’s very, very nice to me and I just love her. She’s really sweet.” Annabelle’s parents could not be happier with their new addition to the family. Laura, Annabelle’s mom said: “Gia has brought so much love into our family. Annabelle is very proud to have Gia as her K9 Buddy and she became so comfortable with her so quickly. If Annabelle is going through a hard time, she goes to Gia for comfort. Annabelle has expressed interest in having a guide dog when she becomes a teenager, and having Gia is perfect for her now. She enjoys telling people about Guide Dogs for the Blind and about Gia’s special training. Annabelle is outdoors more and exercising more thanks to Gia.” Annabelle agrees, “Gia changed my life, because now we have a dog and now I have much more fun.”

Annabelle poses with Gia on their deck with chairs and beautiful pots in the background.
Annabelle and Gia
Widget, a female yellow Lab completed most of formal guide dog training before becoming career changed. She is sweet, smart, confident and easy going. She was matched with Hallie, an 8 year-old girl living in Colorado. This is an active family that includes two younger brothers ages 6 year-old and 22 months. Katie, Hallie’s mom, writes: “The day we got Widget, Hallie had so much excitement, adrenalin, and anticipation built up on what the experience would be like. After the initial greeting and walk, we gave Widget a tour of our house. Hallie finally got to have a moment to really settle in and sit with Widget. As Widget’s warm body snuggled into Hallie, that’s when she said something like, ‘My anxiety was at 100% but now that Widget is here it’s at 0%. My heart is now 100% full of love instead.’ Widget sleeps on Hallie’s floor each night and will follow Hallie up to her room when she knows it’s getting close to bed time. Hallie drapes her arm over her bed to pet her furry companion as she falls asleep; her room is quiet and calm. Before Widget, this was not the case for bedtime. Hallie has always had a hard time falling asleep and was usually ‘stir-crazy’ at night until about 10:30-11pm. We have tried EVERYTHING to help Hallie; medicine, homeopathic items, music, calming exercises…EVERYTHING.  For the last five nights Hallie has been quiet and sleeping by 8:30. This is a miracle! This extra sleep will only be good for Hallie’s mood and health!!! It is incredible to my husband Adam and I how much work went into this dog. She is so well behaved, listens not only to our commands, but takes direction from both Carter (6 years-old) and Hallie (8 years-old). She’ll seek Hallie out to snuggle. She has seamlessly slid right into our family, only enhancing our lives.”

Hallie lies in Widget's bed with her arm around the adorable yellow Lab (a green plush toy that says "FOREVER" is next to them).
Hallie and Widget
Katie also shared some of Hallie’s comments about Widget, her new best friend:

“Didn’t God make Widget with so much love inside her!?”

“Widget’s heart beams love into mine.”

“When she greets me with her tail wagging it’s like she’s putting fairy sparkles everywhere.”

To Hallie, Widget has filled our home with magic.

Thank you to everyone who contributed some “magic” into these families lives!

To learn more about our K9 Buddy program, please visit: www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer?pagename=programs_youth_k9buddy

Thursday, May 7, 2015


By: GDB Foster Care Coordinator Rebecca Hornick

As I try to process the joy and even some sadness from recent retirement of our beloved veterinarian and longtime GDB employee and friend, Dr. Craig Dietrich, I am struck by what it means to be an employee here at GDB long-term. We understand why this amazing organization attracts amazing new staff, from all walks of life, year after year. Some come and then go on to walk other career paths in their life, but remain forever touched by their connection to this transformative place. But what type of person comes here, sometimes as a youngster, with stars in their eyes, and remains year after year, change after change, and continues to be held in the spell of the intrinsic rewards of being part of the GDB workforce that makes this place flow?

I started my career here over 20 years ago, so I am happy and proud to think of myself as a “life-er.” After all, I hope to remain here, helping support our mission, until I am old and gray. And I have known others here that I would call life-ers as well.  One of these folks is actually someone who came many years ago, had a brief intermission while he was engaged in another line of work, but then decided he missed GDB so much that he just HAD to come back! Many of you know him; he’s our favorite Master of Ceremonies at Fun Day, always ready with a warm and welcoming smile for all he sees. He is, of course, our beloved Mick Aguilera or as I like to call him, “BOOMERANG MICK!” So let’s take a peek, into the life and times of one our favorite “life-ers” at GDB and get to know Mick!

How did you learn about GDB? I had been working in a specialty running shoe store in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and met Karen Butterworth (Asst. Canine Welfare/Neonatal Manager), who was running in a women’s track team sponsored by the store. Karen was working in the GDB Kennel and as we became friends she talked a lot about her job in the Kennel and it sounded very interesting. I had been in the world of retail long enough to know that I needed a big change in my life and so I talked to Karen more about GDB, and she recommended that I come to talk to Canine Welfare / Neonatal Manager Kathy Fenger and apply for a Kennel position.

When did you start at GDB? Before I started as Resident Advisor this January, I started working at GDB in January 1996, where I worked two years in the Kennel Department, and then 10 years in the Puppy Raising Department. I then left in 2008 to help open up a business in downtown San Francisco. After seven years with our successful salon, I felt it was time to get back to doing something I was passionate about, and that was Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Mick (wearing a tan baseball hat) checks the ears of one of the puppies (a yellow Lab) on the Puppy Truck

What roles have you had here and what years did they include? I started out in the Kennel Department (1996 – 1998) and got a chance to work with breeder dogs and their new pups in the Whelping Kennel. I also worked with the daily care and feeding of GDB puppies, retired guides and career change dogs. During my time in the Kennel I had the opportunity to work with Charlotte Hansen who was then coordinating the Puppy Truck trips, and on those many trips I got to meet and work with GDB Puppy Raisers in (at the time) eight western states. In 1998 I moved over to the Puppy Raising Department and worked as Recall Coordinator (coordinating guide dog puppies returning for formal training), as well as scheduling and traveling with the Puppy Trucks. During this time I also worked with the Development Department and was on stage to host and act as Master of Ceremonies for GDB fundraising events, as well as for GDB Fun Day events (celebrating our amazing puppy raisers). Even during my time away from GDB, I continued as a volunteer and would help with fundraising events.

Where are you originally from and what did you study/what are your interests and hobbies? I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, with a very close knit family of dad and mom, and an older brother and two younger sisters. In high school l discovered the world of Theater Arts and acted on stage and sang in both school and church choirs. I was also very competitive in our school cross country and track teams, and continued to compete as a marathoner, completing the New York City Marathon five times.

Mick smiles as a gets a kiss from a young puppy (yellow Lab) while standing under some mistletoe on the steps of the Puppy Truck.

What GDB dogs have you had or have now? My love of Golden Retrievers started when I adopted a career change dog named Camber. She was a nine month-old puppy when I got her, and she lived with us for 11 years.  I then had the opportunity to be a Breeder Custodian and had Golden Retriever named Kaylee in our home for her five litters. She is now retired and living a new life with her GDB puppy raisers in Oregon.

What is one of your favorite things about being part of GDB? One of my favorite things about being a part of GDB is working with people of all ages who have such an amazing commitment to our programs.

Do you have a fun or moving story from here you’d like to share? I really feel like I’ve gone full circle while working here at GDB. First working with the breeders and their puppies in the Whelping Kennel, then working with our GDB puppy raisers, and now working with the students here on campus as they train with their guide dogs.

Mick stands center stage holding the microphone at the GDB Holiday Luncheon at the Westin St. Francis in SF with two female puppy raisers standing behind him (and poinsettias on either side of the stage).

Do you have any words of wisdom for new GDB employees? When I first started in the Kennel Department at GDB I never imagined that I would go on to work with so many other different departments.

Can you sum up your overall experience at GDB so far? The many rewards I've received by working at GDB started as I worked on the “front lines” in the Kennel Department. Working with all ages and types of dogs was a good start to where I am now. And then working in the Puppy Raising department and seeing the true commitment of the puppy raisers and leaders of all ages as I would travel (at the time) those eight western states delivering GDB puppies, career change dogs and retired guides, and then returning on future trips picking up those puppies to deliver them to campus to begin their formal guide dog training. You could feel the love all along the way at each and every stop. And now working with the students and their new guides, I can fully appreciate and understand all that goes into the goal of seeing a new guide team graduate.