I arrived in Washington, passed through security into the main terminal, and was met by a seeing-eye dog whose owner approached tentatively – I was on my cell phone – and said, ‘Hi, Andy,’ motioning that he would wait until I finished my call.
Is the squeak of my sneaker so distinctive? Do I wheeze in some unmistakable way? Or . . . smell?
The black lab’s name was Babs – I could tell this from the yellow vest she was wearing that read, Babs – and its owner, I was relieved to realize, was Rob Shook, a friend from IBM, who was attending the same meeting I was.
He handed me his dog’s card: ‘Babs, Future Guide Dog.’
It had her breed and birth month (Labrador Retriever, born March 2004), along with home address (complete with nine-digit zip code) and website (guidedog.org).
Rob sees perfectly well. He takes Babs everywhere – planes, restaurants, business meetings (‘a great icebreaker,’ he says), because it is his volunteer job to get Babs used to everything. ‘Babs is learning to be a guide dog for the blind,’ the back of her business card reads, continuing . . .
She lives with her ‘puppy walker’ family for the first year of her life, being exposed to as many places, people, noises, smells and situations as possible. Her puppy walkers teach her some basic skills, and these experiences will help her be a more confident guide dog and to succeed in the important job that awaits her. At the end of this year, she will undergo testing and formal training before being matched with a blind or partially-sighted individual to assist them. Babs’s yellow vest indicates she is in training. She thanks you for understanding that, like working guide dogs, she is very friendly but is on the job and need to focus on the tasks ‘at paw’ . . . and can’t have a visit right now.
‘Our home has been filled with the patter of little feet – four of them – for the past couple of years,’ Rob followed up via e-mail. ‘My partner Brian and I are nearing the end of the first year of raising our second guide dog, Babs, a wonderfully bright 11-month-old black Labrador Retriever. We responded to an article in the local paper asking for host families to apply for the ‘puppy walker’ program of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. A few weeks later, we picked up a very sleepy, tiny, warm 10-week-old bundle of joy, and our Guide Dog journey started. Riley, our first, has successfully graduated and is now guiding a gentleman in Massachusetts; we wish Babs the same success.
‘The goal for the first year is to provide a broad base of experiences for the puppy. Guide dogs must be fearless while not being aggressive, and the more things they are exposed to in the first year helps ensure they won’t encounter things that will startle them – and they become confident enough to handle new situations without becoming fearful. Simple tasks like carrying her while vacuuming, letting her meet clowns, watching parades and fireworks shows, walking near traffic, and meeting other neighborhood pets all contribute to success. Sitting on the corner near taxis and other cars in Manhattan, hanging out with the toys in a store at the mall and watching the children playing, and visiting grocery stores also help.
‘The real fun, however, comes in the broader experience of traveling with her. I am on the road a significant percentage of the time for IBM, and much of that time I am accompanied by my puppy. I have encountered no problems taking here anywhere I have gone; this is mostly due to people’s basic nature to help in her training (she has a smart yellow vest – a magic cape of sorts – that while not conferring super powers, does identify her as a Future Guide Dog), and, besides, who can resist a puppy? She flies curled on my feet in a bulkhead row on the airplane, usually sleeping through takeoffs and landings, sleeping (often on her back) in the front passenger footwell of the car, or laying quietly next to me on the train, the subway, or the bus. She stays with me in hotels (trying to sneak onto the bed in the middle of the night, occasionally putting a partially-chewed hoof in my mouth while I’m asleep), she sits under the table in restaurants, accompanies me to meetings, and sits quietly next to the podium when I am presenting. Because of the ease with which she travels and functions in the business world, she will likely be matched with a blind businessperson.
‘The aforementioned yellow vest indicates to her that she is ‘on the job’ (much as her wearing a harness will be a signal in her working life). She loves to play, but quickly learned not to play, eat, or relieve herself while she’s in the vest. When she’s off the clock, she likes to run, jump, play with our other Labrador (and the guinea pig) and behave like any puppy – although the games of ‘tug,’ ‘chase,’ ‘fetch,’ and ‘chew on the guinea pig’ are all highly discouraged. (That last one is especially discouraged by the guinea pig.)
‘If there is any downside to having her, it is that seemingly mundane tasks in public take a little bit longer than usual because everyone wants to know all about her and how the program works.
‘After her year (or so) of living with us, she will start her formal training back at the Guide Dog Foundation. She will need to pass several tests to become a guide dog; one involves firing off a starter’s pistol as she walks by: she can look, but if she jumps, she’s out of the program. When she successfully learns escalators and revolving doors (things we can’t teach her since the rules are quite specific and she could be injured in either), when she shows that she knows what to do at crosswalks, and that she’s ready to be trusted to guide someone in a fast-moving world, only then will she be matched with a blind person. The person she’s matched with will be flown, housed, and fed, at the Guide Dog Foundation’s expense, for a 25-day training course with the dog, and we get invited to graduation to watch them cross the stage together. She then starts her working life, and she can retire with us when she’s done. We figure we’ll start a home for geriatric labradors in about 9 years.
‘To say we’ll miss Babs is an understatement, but we have prepared ourselves from the outset by remembering that we’re just taking care of someone else’s dog for a year. We also will pick up Clara, our next puppy, the day we turn Babs in; who can be sad for long with a puppy around the house?’
☞ The Guide Dog Foundation is always looking for volunteers, so roll up the carpets, have a frank talk with the cat, and click here.
According to this in the Washington Post, CompUSA is going to have to do better with rebates. Good going, Federal Trade Commission.