By MCB Commissioner Janet LaBreck
During the past two years, a very special member of my family has been essential to the day-to-day work of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) and to the many facets of my life: my guide dog, Osbourne. Osbourne was trained at the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation (as my previous guide dog, Xippy had been). Although it took about a year for us to develop our relationship and build a lasting trust, Osbourne is a quick learner and has been a great guide and friend to me. Osbourne is a German Shepard, which is part of what makes him a superb guide dog.
German shepherds and Labrador retrievers are typically chosen as guide and service dogs, but Golden Retrievers and poodles also make great assistance dogs because of their temperament and physical ability. Regardless of the breed, guide and service dogs are vigilant and adaptable, making them invaluable for assisting visually-impaired individuals and supporting their ability to live safely and independently.
Guide dogs are specially-trained to assist blind individuals. The first guide dog schools were founded in Europe as a way to help improve the mobility of World War I veterans, blinded during combat. The first guide dog school in the U.S., The Seeing Eye, was founded in 1929, in Nashville, Tennessee. The Seeing Eye later moved to Morristown, New Jersey, where it still trains guide dogs for blind people from all over the U.S. and Canada.
The Seeing Eye is the oldest guide dog school in the U.S., but it’s not the only one. A handful of guide and service dog schools reside in the Northeast alone, including: the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield Connecticut; the Freedom Guide Dog Foundation in Cassville, New York; and the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) in West Boylston, Massachusetts to name a few. Each guide and service dog school varies in terms of clients they serve—NEADS, for example, provides guide dogs for deaf individuals and individuals with physical disabilities -- but they all go through similar training and who the dogs are matched with is carefully examined.
At all of these schools, training for guide dogs begins with a puppy-fostering program. Puppies that are identified as strong candidates for becoming guide dogs are given to foster families who have volunteered to care for them until they can go, at an older age, to a training school. In addition to providing the puppies with a loving home and teaching them basic obedience, guide dog foster families, with support from the training school the dog is linked to, are responsible for socializing puppies and introducing them to a variety of experiences. The socialization process is a crucial phase in the dog’s overall training, since guide dogs need to be focused while guiding their human companions safely, often through crowds and amidst loud noises.
Once puppies have lived with a foster family for about a year, they are ready to return to their respective training schools. Dogs who have been identified as potential guide dogs, where they participate in an intensive training program learn guiding skills, including: responses to verbal commands, safe navigation of their companion around physical obstacles, and the ability to judge when it is safe for their companion to proceed, e.g. when to cross the street. Dogs that complete training are then matched with a blind person. Depending on the school, dogs that do not complete guide dog training may enter a program for service dogs – dogs that also assist individuals with disabilities, but not necessarily visual impairment -- or they may simply become pets for their foster families, or for another family looking to adopt.
I’m grateful to Fidelco for their excellent training of Osbourne; he is a wonderfully skilled guide dog with an amazing temperament. And the generous families who provide foster care for guide dogs are where this important asset for the blind begins.
For more information about guide dogs and foster care for puppies click here.