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July 5, 2020
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A different type of graduation

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
December 20, 2019

On Saturday December 7, I was an invited guest to the graduation of Zydeco and five other guide dogs for Class 916. The graduation ceremony was held at the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB). Zydeco, his litter mate Zephyr, and the four other dogs were graduating with their humans after extensive training to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Their new humans came from all over the United States to attend the final two weeks of the dog’s training, to bond with their dog, and begin their new life with their four-legged partners. So, they too were graduating on this Sat. 

A local Rohnert Park resident, Tim Nonn, was part of this class and Zydeco is his guide dog. Others came from Florida, Tennessee and three were from central or southern California.

It’s likely most of us have heard of this non-profit organization in one form or another.  But I suspect most of us are unaware of the history of GDB or the process they use to train dogs for their future duties as a guide dog. And, many of us probably didn’t realize that the main training campus is a North Bay neighbor to us in Rohnert Park. That’s the heart of this story. 

The organization was formed 77 years ago in 1942 and was originally designed to support World War II veterans who were blinded in the war. The initial location was in Los Gatos, Ca. out of a rented house. As the organization grew, they moved to their main campus in San Rafael in 1947. They also opened another campus in Boring, Oregon in 1995. According to Wikipedia, they have about 2,000 Guide Dog teams across the United States and Canada. They operate on the generous support of their donors and volunteers, receiving no government funding. They are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, charitable organization. They provide their services to blind and visually impaired individuals for no cost which includes well trained service dogs and the veterinary care those dogs need.

The first guide dog was a German Shepherd named Blondie. She was a rescue dog. Having started with rescue dogs, mostly German Shepherds, they later began breeding their own guide dogs. Up until 2007, German Shepherds were the most common breed used. Today their breeding colony mostly consists of Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Lab/Golden crosses. Zydeco is a male Yellow Labrador Retriever. In their breeding efforts they focus on qualities needed in a guide dog that includes excellent health, a willingness to work, high desire to please, intelligence and an easy-to-work-with temperament. They certainly succeeded with Zydeco as I’ve seen all these qualities in him on multiple occasions since his graduation day.

Currently, more than 2,000 families participate in GDB’s Puppy Raising program. This is where the greatest need for volunteers exist. They belong to a local club where they get support and training on how to work with the puppies. They get the puppy at about eight weeks old and have them until they’re about 13-15 months and are responsible for teaching the dog good manners and basic obedience while at home or while out working in public. 

After this initial Puppy Raising program, the dogs are brought back for more formal training at one of the GDB’s campuses where they commence their intense training with specialized instructors. It’s an 8-phase program with the dogs gradually learning how to do guide work such as leading in a straight line, stopping at ground elevation changes or obstacles either overhead or in the path of travel. This specialized training usually runs two to three months. If the dog successfully completes this training, GDB considers them “class ready” and they start looking for a good match. A good match means matching the dog with the lifestyle of an individual, the size and speed of the dog’s gait, as well as any other issues that may affect the dog’s ability to guide their potential partner.

When a likely match is made, the partnership attends a two-week intensive training session at one of their campuses. Like Class 916, a class usually is between six to eight pairs. A state-certified instructor typically will work with two students and their dogs helping them bond and become a team. If the student and their dog bond and work well together, they will graduate in an official ceremony like the one I attended on the 7th. If available, the puppy raising family will formally present the dog to their new partner. For Class 916, the puppy raisers came from Texas, Arizona and California. 

Not all dogs raised make it to graduation. There may be a health or behavioral problem that make them not suitable for being a Guide Dog. These dogs experience a “Career Change.” That may be going into a K9 Buddy Program to be matched up with a visually impaired child so that child has a companion and also learns how to care for a dog which makes it easier for them later in life when they’re ready for a guide dog and independent living. If the K9 Buddy Program is not a good fit, GDB will work with other organizations to find a fit for the dog. For example, Hearing Dog Program, Search and Rescue, Dogs for Diabetes as well as others. If no other organization is suitable, the puppy raising family has the option to adopt the dog. If that family can’t or doesn’t want to adopt, GDB finds a suitable adopted family for the dog.

So, if you’re out and about and you see one of our newest Rohnert Park community members, Zydeco, walking with Nonn be sure to welcome him to our neighborhood. And remember, Guide Dogs for the Blind is 100 percent donor supported. If you are looking for a worthwhile non-profit to support, including employer year-end donation matches, you have one in our own back yard to consider. For more information or to donate visit their website at: https://www.guidedogs.com/