A WORKING DOG GUIDE
By Cheree Heppe
|Unlike most Americans, I have the legal
right and privilege to bring my dog with me wherever I go because I am
totally blind and my dog works as my guide. Since the introduction
of dog guides for blind people into the United States from Germany in the
early 1920's, blind people and their canine guides have earned the legal
right to travel anywhere. Dogs who guide blind people are not pets,
but represent a highly educated and disciplined example of joint canine/human
When I walk down the street, people often
ask about my dog guide. She is a striking female German shepherd,
mostly black with large paws and radar dish ears. She is a gentle,
calm, serious and responsible individual who enjoys being with her people
and going to new places and she is a very easy dog to live with.
People ask me her age, or how long she has been with me. They complement
us on our work together and ask where we received our training. At
this point, our story diverges from the majority of dog guide owners because
my dog received her
Since 1970, I successfully worked and trained with dogs from various dog guide schools. Training my own dog guide would not have been my first choice, but after retiring my previous dog guide in late 1989, I attempted to obtain a suitable replacement, spent fifteen weeks at a total of four separate schools and came home without a dog. The "trained" dogs the schools offered me fell far short of the quality I experienced with my previous three dog guides. When I finally decided to search out and train a dog myself, I felt certain I could do better than what the schools had lately offered me and could educate a dog to guide in a safe and competent manner.
Before sighted people took on the work of training dogs to lead the blind or organized the knowledge around such training into formalized schools, the blind trained dog guides for themselves. Some blind people handle and train their dog guides well and these offer valuable examples. I know of a blind Canadian who trains his own dogs and trained several dogs for other blind people. I also know of blind people who hire sighted people to privately train dog guides for them.
Fortunately, I use a long white cane in combination with excellent orientation and these skills are essential if one expects success in educating and working with a dog guide. It also helps to read everything available on dogs and dog guides, to speak extensively with a wide range of dog guide owners and to gain hands-on dog handling experience prior to selecting a canine candidate for dog guide work.
In January, 1991, a breeder referred me to
Delores Miller who
Delight belonged to one of Delores's teen-age
boys and Delores said she would speak with him about letting Delight try
to learn to become a dog guide with the understanding that the dog would
return to the family if she failed the training. After the Millers
drove down with Delight and a family consultation occurred, Delores phoned
to say that they would place Delight with me. The Millers exhibited
none of the skepticism, patronization and controlling attitudes so prevelent
Originally, the Millers raised Delight as a brood bitch and family pet. Delight spent most of her time in the Millers home and accompanied them to such places as horse stables, grocery stores, dog club meetings, malls, social gatherings and restaurants. We made special arrangements which allowed the family to take Delight into a wide variety of public places and Delores commented that the dog was turning into a regular party animal. During this period, the Millers drove to Boston and spent the day walking and traveling throughout the city via public transit and Delight confidently rode with them on the T.
On February 15th, 1991, I began Delight's training. Because she would be living and working in a primarily urban environment, Delight needed to master leash relieving on pavement. She eventually learned this, but as Delores predicted, it took her a long time. She did not have accidents in the house during her introduction to leash relieving however, and remains clean in buildings to date.
It has always been very helpful to consult Delores about Delight's habits and traits. For instance, in her puppy home, Delight received her food on an on-demand basis -- Delight demanded and her family provided. Delores said it was nothing short of total gluttony for Delight around their house. so, quite naturally, she did not take readily to a regimented, dog food based, time constrained feeding regime. Delores predicted correctly that in the adjustments Delight would be asked to make for her new career, this would be one of her most difficult. I use a high-grade commercially available dog food as the base of her diet. She is a "hard keeper" and I find that Delight retains weight, good coat and vigor when cooked chicken, vitamins and oil are added.
At first, Delight performed very rudimentary guidework so I continued to carry and use a folding long white cane. However, even in the very early stages of her education with me, proved quite easy to take Delight into public places, public accommodations and on to transportation because her behavior and general appearance matched and often surpassed the behavior and appearance of dogs working as guides from the schools.
The second week with Delight, I agreed to travel to New Haven to assist with some organizing for the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut. Beforehand, I called Delores to ask how she thought Delight would manage. Delores confidently assured me Delight would do fine, so, I packed my things, Delight's rug and toys and off we went.
I took the train and stayed in a downtown hotel. During my stay in New Haven, the Millers visited me and took me to a Mexican restaurant and, of course, Delight accompanied us. She followed the Millers accurately from their car into the restaurant and remained quietly out of sight under the table. Some patrons didn't realize a dog was there until we stood up to leave. In the hotel, Delight stopped for the few steps descending into the dining room and followed the hostess to a table, ignoring the other diners.
At the luncheon meeting which culminated the NFB's organizing effort, numerous blind people using dog guides and canes attended and Delight behaved beautifully. Delight's behavior and performance seemed exceptional, especially in the face of her rudimentary level of experience.
Delight learned to stop for curbs, cross straight at streets and avoid stationary obstacles. As her education progressed, I asked a friend with steady nerves and reflexes to assist me in Delight's traffic education. To ensure that Delight understood that she must stop, back up or refuse to proceed in the face of an unsafe traffic situation, my friend followed on foot during work with "natural" traffic. Initial traffic work took place after Delight mastered stationary obstacles and gained a fair understanding of avoiding moving ones, such as pedestrians.
In the summer of 1991, I flew to New Orleans to attend the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Delight accompanied me and accepted her first plane flight as a matter of course. Approximately three thousand blind people attended the convention and with so many dog guides and white canes to maneuver around, Delight guided well. I did not have problems with her adjustments or reactions and Delight seemed to thrive on the new experiences and the lavish praise and attention she received in her guide work role. Although her guide work education consisted of only four and one-half months' previous experience, we spent time in the hotel complex as well as in the French Quarter. Delight handled the noise, crowds and distractions very well, despite her newness and some points of disorientation on my part.
Not all of Delight's guidework experiences have been positive. During the summer while sitting in an open air mall eating my lunch, a dog guide from one of the schools dragged its blind owner over and initiated an attack upon Delight. Even though the attacking dog had a history of similar serious behavior problems which people reported to the school, the school took no action.
Responsibility for team safety and success
rests squarely upon hard work, consistent handling and a profound and very
personal respect for the value of a superb dog guide. Since Delight
did not receive training through a school, a few blind and sighted people
have expressed skepticism about her safety and abilities. However, the
majority of responses are very positive and most say that the dog has to
go through fewer transitions and can be better tailored to my needs.
In opting to train my own dog guide, I can gain access to information on
the dog's entire background and medical history. I can control every
A year has passed since I began educating my new canine partner. She is guiding and handling her responsibilities well and it is especially refreshing to work with a reliable dog guide once again.
In early February, 1992, Delight accompanied me by train to Washington, D.C. I directed Delight who guided me efficiently to and from Capital Hill, through the Metro subway system, around sidewalk construction and throughout a large, congested hotel complex. I find the time and effort I invested in educating my own dog guide to be well spent and I am satisfied with the high quality result.
I hope to work with Delight over a long stretch of years and when Delight retires, I hope to find people as generous as the Millers, friends and associates as willing to assist me with the dog education process and a dog as lovely and suitable as Delight.
|Delight is retired due to
a viscious dog attack. Cheree is looking for
a new dog to train. Here are her requirements. If you can help,
click on her name above and email her. Thank you.
I am located in Connecticut and the dog I am looking for will be
I am looking for a Gsd, preferably female of moderate size
The dog I require would exhibit good manners combined with drive
I am looking for dogs whose lines have been used successfully in
Would you be willing to execute simple tests and score them to
In what areas do you work with or compete with your dogs?
Thank you for responding to my e-mail inquiry and for suggesting