Friday, February 10, 2012

A Moving Afternoon with Guide Dogs of the Desert

Yesterday I was really moved to take part in Dog Day Afternoon, a fundraising luncheon, hosted outdoors at the beautiful and historic Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs. The luncheon celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Guide Dogs of the Desert. What an amazing organization!
“Every 7 minutes, someone in North America will become blind or visually impaired.” -- American Foundation for the Blind.
You think you know about guide dogs, but I sure as heck really didn’t know as much as I thought I did! I chatted with several people about their guide dogs and especially enjoyed meeting Nicole and Snickers, the young lady and her wonderful black lab with me in the photo at left. Snickers is Nicole’s third guide dog and she said he is her favorite. When I asked her why she said, “You know, some dogs are just extra special.” I told her I understood that completely. She also said that Snickers is so smart and never lets her down and opens the world for her that she would otherwise not have available if she just went out with a cane. He is responsible for her safety and he is her eyes to the world, plus he is a very sweet, loving boy. I then asked if I could pet him and she said I could. I crouched down and Snickers plopped his head in my lap and closed his eyes when I massaged his big head and ears. He is a delight!

Guide Dogs of the Desert has a waiting list of 120 people across North America in need of a guide dog. They can only produce/train about 30 a year at this point so the need is strong. They made a smart decision about a year or so ago to produce their own dogs and so are breeding labrador retrievers, both black and yellow, plus standard poodles, german shepherds and golden retrievers to help keep up with the demand. The organization is super cautious in order to ensure that no dogs are bred that may have negative genetic tendencies like hip dysplasia, heart disease, or even problems like hyper personality. They are like reputable breeders who want to ensure they have healthy stock both physically and mentally that can go on to assist those in need.

Even with all this care, the organization often introduce 10 dogs to a recipient in need and sometimes none match up. It is not an exact science but I think, more of an art to match up the guide dogs and the people they will partner with. They rely solely on donations to keep their programs going. Smoke Tree Ranch is a wonderful supporter and has sponsored many guide dogs.

The dog is about two years old when it meets its blind person. It takes many, many hours of socialization and then training to have a dog who can help lead a blind person from place to place. Once the person is matched with their dog they go through 28 days of training together so they can emerge as a safe and effective team in order to navigate as a unit in the outside world.

The North American average for dogs who graduate the program is about 50 per cent but Guide Dogs of the Desert has an average of 73 per cent, which is fabulous. They definitely have strong supporters, but they are also passionate about what they do and they send dogs all over North America. They also have amazing volunteers and foster families who raise the pups until they are 18 months old and go off to training.

In the Guide Dogs of the Desert literature, Alan Fitzsimmons said that “going from a cane to a guide dog is like going from a skateboard to a Ferrari.”

I plan to attend a graduation later this year. I understand there is not a dry eye in the house as the foster families say goodbye to the baby they nurtured and the person who has been waiting forever for their guide dog happily unites with their new partner. It’s an understandably emotional experience and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Some facts:

• Guide Dogs of the Desert was founded in 1972 and has graduated more than 1000 students.
• GDD provides students with a family environment
• The organization has smaller class sizes so they can offer both dogs and the people they will guide with more individual attention
• Student to trainer ratio is 3:1
• GDD is a member of the International Guide Dog Federation
• The blind receive their trained dogs and personalized instruction, including the 28 days of on-campus training for first time users, free of charge.

The organization’s mission statement:
Guide Dogs of the Desert improves the lives of the blind by creating opportunities for life changing independence, and by conducting community outreach and education programs.
Taking part yesterday was a different experience than I expected. It was a lovely luncheon on a sunny afternoon in a gorgeous setting. However, more than that it was an emotional and heartwarming afternoon which simply reinforced how wonderful I think all dogs are.

You can visit Guide Dogs of the Desert here.

No comments:

Post a Comment