Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Gift

By: GDB graduate Joy Thomas

I sometimes find it ironic that one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received was given to me by complete strangers. I usually reserve the most valuable, time-consuming presents for my close family members, so the idea that someone would put such great effort into a gift for a stranger is, at times, baffling to me; the idea that someone would prepare such a gift 38 times is downright mind-boggling.

But that’s exactly what my guide dog, Roja’s, puppy raisers did. They raised 38 puppies prior to Roja. Of course, not all of those became guide dogs and not all of them were long-term raising situations, but from what they shared, they have seen a significant number of their pups graduate as guide dogs. In Roja’s case, they actually co-raised her with another family, due to work scheduling issues. The cooperation of two remarkable families resulted in the creation of a very adaptable, calm guide dog, which is exactly what I needed.

My raisers’ hours of work and play with Roja resulted in a four-legged angel with a set of eyes that help me move smoothly through life. As if that gift weren’t enough, my raisers gave me other gifts on graduation day. They brought a toy they made for Roja, but more meaningful to me, they gave me the words I needed to hear that day. They told me that they could tell Roja was meant to be a guide dog from the time she was a puppy.

Before meeting them, I had been nervous that the interaction would be difficult, that maybe they’d be sobbing over the sadness of saying goodbye to her, as I had heard some classmates describe about their graduation day meeting with their previous dogs’ raisers. Such a reaction would have been understandable to me. I know that puppy raisers wake up in the middle of the night with their puppies in the early days, that they spend countless hours working with and training these pups that are constantly by their side and become part of their families. It wouldn’t have surprised me nor annoyed me in the least if there had been tears. One classmate told me that his first puppy raiser’s parting words were: “She may be our puppy, but she’s your dog.” I appreciated hearing the distinction put in those words.

And I appreciated the words of encouragement from Roja’s raisers. I think after raising so many dogs, they had learned to detach themselves emotionally, and maybe since she was co-raised, they weren’t as attached. But they put a tremendous amount of time and effort and love into a puppy that they eventually gave up for a complete stranger. And then, as if that weren’t enough, they drove several hours to send Roja off with a proper farewell, and they offered that same stranger the gift of letting yet another puppy go graciously and with meaningful words.

They later sent me an email, telling me that they both felt that Roja seemed happy with me. They had no idea that at times I had doubted Roja’s and my bond at the beginning, so the idea that they would encourage me in that exact area meant so much to me, especially since they had spent enough time with her as a puppy to assess whether she looked happy.

The interesting thing about receiving such a sizable gift from strangers is that there’s no suitable gift I can give in return that would be able to convey my gratitude. I gave Roja’s raisers framed pictures of Roja and myself, which seemed almost comical in its simplicity on graduation day, compared with the gift that would be leading me home. I can only hope that Roja’s raisers received an intrinsic gift as they watched Roja and me graduate. That watching a stranger gain newfound mobility, confidence and freedom as a result of their sacrifice made it somehow worth it for them. I have the sense that this must be true, or they wouldn’t have continued raising pups all these years. Even if it’s not an equal exchange, however, that’s the best part about gifts. When given genuinely, they are given without expectation, even to strangers.

Joy kneels down smiling next to her guide dog Roja (yellow Lab in harness) on a Fall day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Alaska Airlines Collaborates with Guide Dogs for the Blind to Update Policy and Allow Service Animals in Training to Travel

Alaska Airlines, in collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), has updated their Accessible Travel Services policy to allow service animals in training to travel domestically at no cost.

“GDB is honored to partner with Alaska Airlines and we are thrilled that our guide dog puppies in training will now have the ability to practice traveling both in the airport and in cabin. This type of exposure helps to prepare them for the highest level of service dog work -- becoming a guide dog for someone who is blind or visually impaired,” said Christine Benninger, Guide Dogs for the Blind president and CEO. “We very much appreciate Alaska Airlines’ ongoing efforts to improve independent travel and customer service for all travelers, especially those with disabilities.”

Listed are some of the requirements:

-Travel is wholly within the United States.
-Space confirmed in advance.
-The service dog is being transported by their trainer/raiser.
-The trainer/raiser can provide a health certificate for the dog in training and an official ID card issued by the assistance organization.

“Making travel easier for our customers is a mantra at Alaska Airlines,” said Len Wolford, Alaska Airlines passenger service policy and procedure specialist. “When Guide Dogs for the Blind asked us to adopt a policy that would welcome ‘dogs in training’ on our planes, we responded quickly and waived our standard fee to allow service dogs-in-training to travel free of charge.”

Alaska Airlines and GDB recently hosted an exclusive event at Sea-Tac Airport for individuals who are blind and visually impaired, as well as GDB graduates and volunteers, to enhance the travel experience for all.
Alaska Airlines and GDB recently hosted an exclusive event at Sea-Tac Airport for individuals who are 
blind and visually impaired, as well as GDB graduates and volunteers, to enhance the travel experience for all.
GDB puppy raising volunteers raise puppies from age eight weeks to 16-18 months, at which point they can enter into formal guide dog training. During this time in the puppy raising home, families are responsible for providing their guide dog puppies with a well-rounded, nurturing environment. To support the puppy raisers, GDB offers a comprehensive puppy raising manual, organized training and socialization through meetings with other local Puppy Raising clubs, as well as staff that offer training and problem solving for the pups and their raisers. GDB currently has over 2,000 active puppy raising volunteers in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington.

With several hundred puppies needing raiser homes every year, puppy raisers are a critical part of producing highly trained guide dogs and other service dogs. People interested in Puppy Raising can learn more here:

To view Alaska Airline’s full updated policy regarding Accessibly Travel Services, specifically Service Animals in Training, please visit:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

GDB Puppy Raising Youth Scholarship Recipient: Gina Phillipsen Essay

Raising Guide Dog for the Blind (GDB) puppies has provided many and varied opportunities for me to impact others in my community, and one particular instance stands out from the rest. Training of Carnival, my second GDB puppy, began at the start of summer so that by my second day of sophomore year I was able to introduce her to the challenges of attending high school. Walking into my last class of the day, Carnival was ready to fall asleep. Luckily, the teacher was still trying to figure the year out, and we were able to relax. At the end of the period, an earnest classmate I had never seen before approached me. Assuming she would just ask for Carnival’s name like countless others, I prepared myself to answer quickly and clearly. Instead, she surprised me by asking me about the program I was involved with and expressed interest in joining. I invited her to my club meeting that Friday, and Lexie has since become my best friend. We enjoyed a sleepover after every Friday GDB club meeting, working together to train Carnival to become the best GDB puppy imaginable. As Lexie’s parents were unsure whether or not their family would be able to raise a GDB puppy on their own, Lexie and I planned to submit a co-raising application once Carnival had returned to San Raphael. In the meantime Lexie became almost a co-raiser for Carnival, puppy sitting to get her hours, and working Carnival at meetings. Once Carnival returned to GDB, Lexie and I turned in our puppy raising application and waited patiently for word, while stressing together about Carnival’s phase number. After a few short weeks, we were informed of Carnival’s selection to become a breeder, and her graduation ceremony date at Guide Dog Fun Day. Lexie and her family attended Fun Day as well, to better prepare for their puppy and to enjoy the festivities. After presenting Carnival to her breeder keepers, Lexie and I were surprised with a puppy! This fluffy bundle of joy was Lloyd, a puppy from the Vernon and Carsey litter. We were so excited; we could not wait to begin training him! All too soon Lloyd was old enough to return to GDB, and although we are no longer co-raising a puppy, our friendship has remained as strong as ever.

My willingness to invest a large amount of time and emotional involvement in raising and training puppies that I know I will be giving up to improve a stranger's life places me in an elite group. Making the difference between dependent and independent lifestyles, a guide dog is truly a gift of love. What really makes me stand out from the crowd is that in addition to all the responsibilities associated with raising a puppy to specific standards, I also work very diligently to promote the GDB program. I am very proud of my guide dog puppies Jamaica, Carnival, Lloyd and Nepal and the GDB program, so I have invested significant time and effort promoting the program locally to help secure donations to GDB and to recruit volunteers into the program. Jamaica, Carnival, Lloyd, and Nepal have been present in all of my high school classes. I have taken each of my puppies-in-training to classrooms at nearby pre-schools, elementary and middle schools for promotional talks and presentations. I have also attended business networking association meetings to introduce Jamaica, Carnival and Lloyd and speak on behalf of the GDB program in order to raise funds for the program.

Over the past twelve months I have become greatly attached to Nepal, and have learned about the responsibility of taking care of a loving, living creature. I have taught her all of her commands and continue to reinforce her training if she encounters difficulties with a command. When my family and I take her back to GDB, tears of separation will become intermixed with tears of pride. For the next six months we will be happy if we do not hear any news of her, as that means she is doing well in her training. If Nepal becomes a Guide Dog I will not see her very often, but I will know that the blind person who receives her will love Nepal just as much as I have and she will still be in a good home. Every blind person who receives a Guide Dog seems overwhelmed with gratitude, and many aren’t able to imagine life without the dog once they have had one. I am involved with GDB because of the happiness of everyone whose life is touched by the puppies: the raiser, the raiser's family, the trainer, the blind person, and all of the people who have ever interacted with the puppy along its journey to a life of service.

Learning is one of my favorite activities, and I aspire to further my learning to the fullest extent in order to build upon the foundation of knowledge in my field. I plan on obtaining my degree at a 4-year university starting next year to major in engineering. As an Engineer, I will be able to invent solutions to fascinating problems, which will in turn benefit my society. I will be able to work towards safer lives and a cleaner environment. Once I have completed training in my chosen field of study, I would like to continue on the path of knowledge, either going into the field of research or teaching others such that they may love the subject as I do. I have tutored mathematics for three years, and I enjoy using my passion to help others. Raising GDB puppies has taught me the importance and responsibility of caring, selfless and meaningful contribution to others in my community, country and world. I aspire to become an engineer and dedicate my life to the goal of turning ideas into reality to increase quality of life for people while taking care of the earth.

Gina (wearing a red sweatshirt) smiles holding a young black Lab puppy in her arms.