Guide Dogs: From Puppies to Partners

Guide Dogs: From Puppies to Partners
By Steve Pawlowski Photos Cynthia Woods and Foundation for Blind Children

Watching a visually impaired person navigate his way through busy city streets, you may think the guide dog is performing a task the person couldn’t perform alone; it may even appear that the dog is leading the person. The fact is that neither dog nor person can cross the street alone without risk. As a team, however, they can do it safely.

Guide Dogs of the Desert (GDD) was founded in 1972, in Southern California, with the purpose of making freedom, mobility, and security accessible to all blind individuals. Nationwide, more than 1,400 guide dog teams have graduated from their programs, and all services and post-graduation support is provided at no cost.

GDD’s future guide dogs begin with a breeding program that includes Labrador Retrievers and Standard Poodles. At 10-12 weeks, the puppies arrive at the Puppy Development Center. After a health check and vaccinations, they’re assigned to volunteer puppy raisers who welcome these pups into their homes, providing essential human bonding, basic obedience training, and socialization.

At 18-20 months, the puppies return to the campus for medical and temperament evaluations before training with guide dog mobility instructors. Once cleared, the dogs and trainers work together for 4-6 months, learning the commands and skills that elevate these amazing dogs to guide service.

One of only 13 accredited guide dog schools nationwide, GDD pairs individuals with dogs who match their needs and circumstances. Clients come to the campus, located outside Palm Springs, CA, for intensive training. They’re matched with their new dogs, and they train together for 28 days, learning navigation skills and commands, both on-campus and throughout the community. At that point, they’re ready to begin working together for safe mobility, independence and companionship.

GDD matches 25-30 teams annually, including Cynthia Woods, a certified vision rehabilitation therapist at the Foundation for Blind Children. Cynthia works with adults who, in most cases, have recently lost all or part of their vision. She has non-classic Retinitis Pigmentosa, which has taken her central vision and most of her peripheral vision.

“Guide Dogs of the Desert gave me my life back,” said Cynthia. “I had to learn how to use a white cane before receiving my first dog, and although it gave me more independence, I hated it. I could hear people talking about me in public, and I didn’t want their pity. When I began to work with my first dog, that changed.”

She’s had three guide dogs, and she’s grown very close with them all. She received Tyus, in 1999. He was a beautiful yellow Lab who was trained to fly with Cynthia and her husband in the back seat of their airplane – wearing a headset to protect his ears, of course. He slept through most of the flights, but always awakened to ‘check’ the instruments over her husband’s shoulder!

Jasper the Wonder Dog, a big black Lab with a silly personality, followed Tyus. He was a drooler, so Cynthia would tie a bandana around his neck to keep him tidy. Every morning, he would sit by the dresser where the clean bandanas were stored, waiting for his wardrobe to be chosen. He also put his dirty ‘shirt’ in the laundry basket every evening before bed.

Biscuit was his successor and her current guide. She’s a yellow Lab who never quite grew into her skin. She’s extremely laid back, and people say that she reminds them of a soft, huggable stuffed animal.

“The perfect person/dog match is crucial to the success of a guide dog team, and Biscuit is definitely the perfect dog for me,” says Cynthia. “When I’m at work, she sleeps in my office, occasionally entertaining my clients with snores and noisy dreams. She guides me down the aisles of the grocery store, finding doors and elevators, and taking me through the airport when I travel. On the rare occasions when she doesn’t accompany me, I feel like I’ve lost my vision all over again.”

The opportunity to work with guide dogs changed Cynthia’s life. Because of her transforming experience, she pledged to do everything she can to make this wonderful opportunity available to others.

In addition to serving on GDD’s board, Cynthia chairs their annual fundraiser, Pinot and Pints for Paws. This year’s event is Friday, April 13 at Moon Valley Country Club and is being hosted by ABC 15’s Megan Thompson. For more information or to reserve a seat, please visit guidedogsofthedesert.org or call 760-329-6257.

Visit www.guidedogsofthedesert.org for more information, or call 760-329-6257

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