Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Just Ask

By: Jake Koch, GDB graduate and alumni representative

My guide dog and I stood at the front entrance of a commercial jetliner bound for Spokane Washington. It was the Thanksgiving holiday and I was taking a trip to visit my family for the long weekend; well, almost. As I stepped through the door, a flight attendant stopped in front of me, halting my progress. The attendant informed me that there was a seat for me located just behind the bulkhead. I thanked the crewmember  for the offer and asked to be seated several rows back. The attendant appeared not to hear my request and again informed me of the available seat behind the bulkhead. Wanting to be polite, but finding myself annoyed at the persistence of the flight attendant, I calmly explained that my dog enjoys laying under a seat while flying, and I would rather put my dog in a place where she can rest without being bothered by a large number of curious holiday travelers. After another couple minutes of back and forth discussion with the flight attendant, and a small line of passengers beginning to form at the front door of the aircraft, the attendant seemed to understand and offered me a seat several rows back.

Today’s society is becoming increasingly more safety and lawsuit conscious; employee training programs in industries that serve the public, such as airlines, hotels and restaurants have been greatly expanded to address what seems like every safety and or lawsuit concern that might arise.  With all of this extra training, service personnel sometimes forget to just ask a person about what their needs, wants and expectations of the service are. This feeling of receiving impersonal customer service is sometimes magnified for people with disabilities. This observation is not to put blame on employees working in the service industry, but rather to encourage positive dialog between a customer, regardless of abilities and the service personnel.

With the increasing expansion of training protocols that must be mastered by service employees, it is easy to forget about disability specific laws, regulations and preferences. Many people with disabilities and disability advocates are quick to point out the apparent “ignorance,” that they believe is held by service industry workers. Although there is undoubtedly some “ignorance,” held by employees in the service industry, it is important to note that nobody could possibly remember every provision, regulation, or preference pertaining to people with disabilities. A positive solution that you won’t find in many blog posts that are critical of service industry employees is to Just Ask. If you are at all affiliated with the service industry, and you are working with a person who has a disability, welcome them to your establishment. Then, simply ask how you may assist them. People with disabilities are people first, and want to be able to communicate their needs, wants, and expectations as a consumer; just like everybody else.

Let me provide some real-world examples:

• Referring to the personal anecdote above, when offering the availability of  a bulkhead seat on an aircraft to a guide dog handler, understand that some people enjoy sitting in different places other than the bulkhead section of the aircraft, depending on the needs of the dog and handler; some people enjoy sitting farther back, while others enjoy sitting in the very front. 

• When waiting on a customer with a disability at a restaurant, address the person with the disability directly; do not ask his or her partner. 

• If you are assisting a blind or visually impaired customer during check-in at a hotel, ask them if they need any assistance. Sometimes people who are blind or visually impaired may ask for an orientation to the hotel’s amenities, including the room they are staying in. In other instances, they may simply ask for the room number, feeling confident in getting around the hotel without assistance.  

Giving a person with a disability the opportunity to explain their own preferences will often result in a positive experience for the service employee and the person with a disability. It is not necessary for employees of the service industry to memorize every rule and regulation pertaining to people with disabilities; instead it’s necessary to treat them with respect and offer your assistance in a positive way, even if their preferences may differ from employee instruction. Likewise, it is foolish to expect employees of service establishments to know and understand very specific laws, rules, and regulations pertaining to a specific disability. When working with a person who has a disability, it’s helpful to remember this phrase: don’t assume; Just Ask. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Use of Science and Technology in Breeding Management

By: GDB Breeding Manager Jenna Bullis

Guide Dogs for the Blind is more than an industry-leading guide dog school; we are a passionate community that serves the visually impaired. With exceptional client services and a robust network of trainers, puppy raisers, donors and volunteers, we prepare highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or have low vision.

One aspect of how GDB leads in the industry is our breeding program. In our earliest days, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: dogs that not only had excellent health, intelligence, and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrive on praise. Our specialized breeding program was started in the late 1940s in an effort to ensure consistent availability of dogs with these desirable traits and to improve future generations of guide dogs.
Technician aliquots (divides out) a sample of saline.

The method used to make long-term genetic changes in our colony is called selection. The selection process determines which dogs join the breeding colony, who they are mated with to produce puppies, how many puppies they have, and how long they remain in the breeding colony. The idea behind selection is simply this: to let the dogs with the best set of genes reproduce so that the next generation has, on average, more desirable genes than the current generation. It is also important to remember that “best” is a relative term and there is no one best dog for all situations. The traits that make one guide dog suited to work in New York City might be quite different than for a guide dog working in a quieter more rural area.

Technician pipettes (placing a drop) of dye onto a slide.

Today our breeding program applies a wide range of scientific tools and techniques in our selection process. In addition to using health, temperament, and genetic (DNA) tests to assess each individual dog we also use population genetics to make genetic predictions. Population genetics allow us to use the extensive data stored on all the relatives of an individual to calculate Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). EBVs allow for comparison between the predicted breeding values of dogs in the colony. At GDB we calculate EBVs for a variety of measurable traits including success as a guide dog and a number of health conditions.

Over time, a closed breeding colony becomes more interrelated, consequently while managing the colony it is also important to maintain genetic diversity. This can happen in a number of ways: bringing in puppies that may mature into breeding stock, acquiring adult breeding stock, or by breeding to outside dogs via natural or artificial means. GDB looks for breeding programs which have selected dogs for similar traits to ensure high success as working guides. This typically means we work with other guide and service dog schools. GDB has a large number of collaborative breeding relationships around the world and routinely exchanges genetic material to maximize the genetic diversity of our colony, contribute to the global development of guide dog services, and to promote sharing knowledge, experiences, and camaraderie. 

Technician looks through microscope at a slide.

Sharing genetic material internationally often occurs by shipping frozen semen. GDB began collecting, freezing, and storing all studs in our colony in the late 1990s. Today, all semen cryopreservation is conducted in our breeding lab by our highly trained staff. This extremely valuable genetic material is frequently used for collaboration and is occasionally used within our current colony to bring back valuable traits from proven stud dogs of the past.

Close-up of microscope optics.

Remaining on the cutting edge of reproductive and selection technologies is a critical component to the ongoing success of GDB’s mission. By carefully managing our breeding colony, we are able to produce exceptional dogs that with time and training can fulfill a life-changing role for our clients. Our international collaborations also enable us to positively impact visually impaired individuals around the world. Breeding is both an art and a science and we are proud to be among the leaders in our industry.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

20th Annual Guide Dog Puppy Travel Day!

By: GDB Puppy Raising Leader Pat Whitehead

What began 20 years ago when a GDB Teen Leader wanted to do "something different and invite everybody" has evolved into an annual excursion for the Pacific Southwest area. With the sincerely appreciated cooperation of both MetroLink and MetroRail as well as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, guide dog puppy raisers, their families, and potential raiser families enjoyed a day "riding the rails" to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Then, a short walk took everyone to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, otherwise known as Olvera Street. After a welcome and group photo, participants enjoyed visiting friends, finding littermates, sightseeing, shopping, enjoying the native dancers, and a delicious lunch before making the return trip home. All appreciated the work of L. A. Southwest Guide Dog raisers in facilitating this annual event. People also looked forward to having time for those special tips from GDB Community Field Representative (CFR) Rick Wilcox.

Participating groups this year included: Antelope Valley Guide Dog Puppy Raisers; BAARK; Diamonds in the Ruff; Glendale Pups to Partners; High Desert Guide Dog Puppy Raisers; Los Angeles Southwest Guide Dog Raisers; North Orange County Puppies to Partners; PRIDE; South Bay Guide Dog Puppy Raisers; South Orange County Paws for Independence; VIP3; Yuma Guide Dog Puppy Raisers. Thank you, all!

Puppy raisers pose on the sidewalk with their guide dogs puppies (one yellow and three black Lab).

A puppy raiser gives one of her cards to someone interested in GDB as her yellow Lab sits calmly at her side.

Two puppy raisers kneel down posing with their yellow Lab guide dog puppy.

Puppy raisers with a black Lab and golden Retriever puppy stand near the signs that say "To Union Station West" the floor is a colorful intricate pattern and the mural above is of children of different ethnicities.

Big group photos of puppy raisers with their guide dog puppies on steps - beautiful sunny day with palms in the background.

Puppy raisers pose in front of the MetroLink train.

A yellow Lab puppy looks up at the camera while tucked under the seat on the train.

Two Golden Retriever guide dog puppies and one Yellow Lab on an elevator.

Puppy raisers with a black Lab and golden Retriever puppy stand near the signs that say "To Union Station West" the floor is a colorful intricate pattern and the mural above is of children of different ethnicities.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


The Greatest Paws on Earth (Utah Alumni Chapter) recently hosted an appreciation breakfast for all the awesome GDB puppy raisers in northern Utah. The event was held at the home of Chapter President, Scott Wilcock and his guide, Senator in Harrisville, Utah. There were nearly 30 dogs and more than 50 people in attendance. 

It was a beautiful and cool summer morning in northern Utah when all the two and four-legged invitees began arriving for the breakfast. A distinct aroma of blueberry pancakes and sausage permeated the entire house as steam billowed from the camp-chef griddle in the backyard. The guests made their way through the house to open back doors where the savory odor was coming from. 
To complement the pancakes and sausage which were donated by the Harrisville Walmart; the buffet table also offered bacon, egg & cheese bagel sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, blueberry and chocolate chip muffins, bananas and fresh fruit kabobs. With plates full of goodies in one hand and leashes in the other, attendees made their way to one of eight tables that were covered with bright blue tablecloths. The group enjoyed the good food and good conversation while the canines enjoyed being together and chillaxing in the shade provided by several canopies which were set up over the tables. The inviting, cool, green grass was a welcome reprieve for the working dogs and guide dog puppies in training. There were also a few retired guides and career change dogs in attendance and they all seemed to enjoy the companionship of other animals that devote their lives to helping and serving humans who need their help.

Tables and tents set up in a beautiful green backyard on a sunny day with people and dogs hanging out in the shade.
After breakfast and while some were working on seconds and thirds, GDB instructor Danielle Alvarado shared a few words with the group and focused on important training elements for the puppy raisers to work on. She answered questions from both the handlers and the puppy raisers.  Before and after her talk, she spent a lot of time, one-on-on, with many of the attendees addressing individual questions and offering suggestions. Danielle’s participation was a key component of the over-all success of the event.

After Danielle’s presentation, eight names of puppy raisers were drawn and door prizes were awarded. Thanks to GDB for the logo items they provided and the guide dog handlers who provided several $20 and $30 gift cards to Petco. After the door prizes, Scott Wilcock presented each of the puppy raiser groups with 30 custom made tee shirts, which were donated by the Utah alumni of GDB, for each of the puppy raisers who provide countless hours and resources of their own to raise these amazing dogs! The shirts were lime green with dark purple print on the front left chest – a block that read “GDB UTAH” and on the back a large GDB logo illustrated by the guide dog team walking and a large bold statement underneath the logo which reads “PRIDE IN PAWS” with the word “in” reversed out inside of a dog paw print. Everyone loved the shirts and Scott also presented a shirt to Danielle for her to take back to San Rafael.

One of the blue tents in the backyard with people eating their food and dogs lying under the tables.

The entire morning was a lot of fun for all who participated and no one left the event feeling hungry. Good information was shared and extreme gratitude was expressed to the puppy raisers for the awesome labor of love provided each and every day. There were even a couple of romances that seemed to blossom during the event; Butch, a yellow Lab and Daniel, a black Lab seemed to take a keen interest in each other and can’t wait for the next get-together!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five Reasons to Take a Guide Dog to College with You

By: Jake Koch, GDB graduate and alumni representative

There are many reasons why a guide dog makes a great travel companion both in college and in life. Here are five good reasons:

1. Travel benefits
Most colleges and universities are relatively large, sprawling and beautiful places; complete with winding sidewalks and often unidentifiable tactual landmarks. The physical layout of the modern campus is spreading outside the box. A guide dog is trained to assist a blind or visually impaired person in achieving safe and efficient travel. Guide dogs can be taught to stop at specific entrances to buildings, or intersections of sidewalks. In addition, guide dogs, by virtue of their training lead a blind or visually impaired person in a straight line. These two important attributes increase efficiency in travel, and reduce confusion for a person who is blind or visually impaired.

2. You will soon become one of the most popular and easily recognized students on campus 
It is hard to stand out amongst 10,000 plus students. However, a person traveling with a guide dog has a significant positive advantage. Many people love dogs, and guide dogs are no exception. Embrace the attention; a guide dog is a great icebreaker! I suggest answering 2-3 guide dog specific questions, then say something like “do you have dogs at home?” People really enjoy talking about their lives, and are often happy to tell you about their animals or experiences. Giving the other person an opportunity to talk about a common subject with a blind or visually impaired guide dog handler will reduce their reservations about talking with that person.

Jake wears his backpack and walks on campus with his guide Angelina (yellow Lab)

3. Confidence breeds confidence
Many of our graduates tell us that a guide dog increases their confidence significantly. If a guide dog brings confidence in travel, it’s likely that a person who is blind or visually impaired will be more confident as well.

4. A guide dog is the best roommate ever 
Most college students either live in a dorm room, or an apartment close to campus. Both options usually contain roommates that you may or may not see eye-to-eye with. Simply put, a guide dog is the best roommate ever! A guide dog won’t steal your food, make a mess of your living space or bring a bunch of crazy friends over to hang out at 3 A.M.

5. Your guide dog can help you get involved with student activities both on and off campus
You as a blind or visually impaired person have learned to get around campus and have met a few of your classmates. Now you want to get involved with some student activities. If you can navigate your college campus, you can get around just about anywhere, and that is exciting! You are free to come and go as you please, and your guide dog will help you get to and from your destination. Everybody wants to hang out with the awesome student with the cool dog; so round up some of your new found friends and go on an adventure.

Jake smiles and puts his arm around his guide Angelina (yellow Lab) with rocks and green plants in the background.

Even though the challenge of college/university life may be daunting, having a guide dog by your side makes the experience that much better. One thing is for certain, a guide dog may not be able to do your homework for you, but he or she certainly won’t eat it either!