Puppy club preps guide dogs for training

Group always looking for volunteers to help prepare canines for work with blind owners

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoAngelina has been with Jake Koch for about six months. Volunteers are needed for the first phase of training guide dogs.

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Guiding Eyes of Clark County

Guide Dogs for the Blind

Angelina is one cool pup.

Mellow. Reliable. Quick. Careful. And ready for more or less anything.

“I knew I needed a dog that could go anywhere. From sidewalks to cattle trails,” said Jake Koch, a graduate of the Washington State School for the Blind, who’s been putting Angelina through her paces for about six months now.

Koch, 23, is an outdoorsy guy who grew up in a tiny Washington town. He’s young, active and ambitious -- working full time as an adviser at Clark College and planning to study management at Portland State University this fall -- but he likens his eyesight to peering through a pinhole.

He was born with bilateral micro-ophthalmalgia, which basically means small, undeveloped eyeballs. So Angelina serves as his eyes.

Meaning what? It’s more than just getting from curb to curb. Angelina is on the lookout for obstructions and problems of all sorts, from low-hanging branches to unsafe commands. She’s comfortable in restaurants and grocery stores. Her manners are impeccable; she doesn’t bark, climb furniture or eat off the floor. And she definitely doesn’t chase cats.

To score this highly skilled job, the Labrador retriever underwent two stages of training -- first via a local puppy club and the homes of volunteers, where preliminaries like potty training and basic obedience were covered, and then at the Guide Dogs for the Blind training campus in Boring, Ore.

Meanwhile, Koch was doing research and soul-searching of his own. “How will this dog fit into my lifestyle? How do I get help and support if there are problems?” Deciding to depend upon a guide dog means “going out on a huge limb,” he said.

Some people opt for white canes instead.

“That’s an equally valid mode of travel,” he said, without the responsibility of entering into a partnership with another living being. But it also comes without the smarts, opportunities and love that a guide dog can bring.

“The thing about walking (without a dog) is, you’re focused on the ground and that’s all. You’re focused on the end of your cane. With a dog, you’re focused on the dog’s attitude and behavior. And the dog can see everything you can’t.”

The relationship is something like a marriage. Your partner brings new possibilities and joys as well as responsibilities and challenges. As soon as he’s awake in the morning, Koch said, he’s got work to do -- feeding and nurturing this being that’s dependent upon him -- before he can depend upon her to steer him safely down the street. He’s got to plan her meals and rest stops as well as his own. When he heads out for the day, he said, he’s got to think and pack for one and one-half.

Basic training

Vancouver’s own puppy club, Guiding Eyes of Clark County, is always in need of more volunteers.

“The people who do this are wonderful people who come into it with a lot of excitement,” said club leader Mike Githens, who convenes weekly meetings, organizes field trips and generally keeps his front paw on Clark County’s crop of up-and-coming guide dogs to be -- and their trainers.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of satisfaction,” he said.

Githens works as an accountant for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District system. On a rainy weekday morning, the scene in his office is the very picture of mellow, with Githens crunching numbers at his desk while trainee Kaya hangs out on her pillow beside him. (Truth be told, Kaya has a hard time restraining her nose when a couple of fantastic-smelling journalists turn up).

“Being calm” is a key skill for guide dogs, Githens said. So is staying calm in all sorts of situations, and in the company of all sorts of people. That’s the point of outings to places such as fire stations and hospitals, he said: exposing puppies to the bewildering variety of sights, smells, sounds and other stimuli they’ll have to negotiate as mature guide dogs. If any concerns come up -- if the scent of diesel causes alarm, if wheelchairs make traffic complicated to figure out -- then there’s plenty of time to address it. Rarely does a puppy or guide dog not work out, Githens said.

When that does happen, it’s kindly viewed as a “career change” -- no different than a human being who’s decided to head in a new direction in life. Koch once had a trained guide dog who abruptly settled on a career change after a couple of years, he said.

The circumstance was not good. Koch and his guide were midway across a four-way downtown Vancouver intersection when the dog just plain stopped. Koch had no choice but to venture the rest of the way by himself. A call to Guide Dogs for the Blind brought out a trainer for some remedial work -- but when that didn’t help, it was obviously time for this guide dog to try a different vocation.

Githens said he knows of at least one former guide dog who transferred its skills into a successful search-and-rescue career.

“They love to work,” he said of the Labradors favored by Guide Dogs for the Blind. “Somewhere in their ancestral gene pool, they’re bred for it.”

That unexpected interruption in his guide dog relationship got Koch curious about dog psychology and motivations, something he’s still delving into. It also got him volunteering with both groups, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Guiding Eyes of Clark County. Last Saturday he staffed a booth during a public event at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry -- a daytime puppy delivery from the Guide Dogs campus in Boring into the eager arms of local volunteers who’ll undertake basic training.

Start with graduation

Volunteers offering to train guide dog puppies are started off with the hardest part: graduation and separation. That’s so they can absorb fully, right up front, that the love affair is going to be a temporary one, Githens said. Twelve to 14 months in the volunteer’s home is a typical tenure, Githens said. Then it’s back to the training campus in Boring, Ore. After that comes the graduation ceremony -- complete with a personal handoff from trainers to blind client.

“You attend a graduation ceremony first, so you can see how it comes to an end,” said Githens. “It’s a pretty poignant moment when it all comes full circle. It’s tough to say goodbye.” Githens has trained eight puppies in his home over the past decade, he said.

The blow is softened, however, with the knowledge that there are plenty more puppies coming into the system. Githens said volunteerism isn’t keeping up with the need.

“I’m a dog lover and I wanted to give back,” Githens said. “When I saw how much this does for another human being — I realized just how remarkable these dogs really are.”