By Derek Wilson
Charlie Brown always understood the true wisdom of dogs: Happiness is a warm puppy.
“Dogs, they just want the unconditional love back that they give to us,” said Guide Dogs for the Blind outreach manager Jane Flower. “They work hard and the paycheck they want is having us love them back.”
Flower and her team at Guide Dogs for the Blind recently hosted “Wags & Wisdom” on Zoom, a forum for young people to share their experiences over the past years with their canine companions after getting a guide dog at relatively young ages.
“One thing about a guide dog is always having a friend there with you,” said Alexann Tureman, who said her dog Sangria has given her a “more efficient way to travel,” among other gifts.
Guide dogs are working dogs, sure, but they do so much more for their human partners than help them across busy intersections. They can give security, confidence, sloppy kisses, warmth, humorous moments and precious memories.
Panelist Jake Olson lost his sight at age 12 and had a guide dog by his side throughout high school. He is believed to be the youngest recipient of a canine companion through Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“One of the silver linings is having a guide dog and having that presence next to you,” Olson said. “I knew I wanted to get a dog as soon as possible.”
Flower was born legally blind and at age 8 was diagnosed with a retinal degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. She knows the special connection that people make when they give their trust — and their hearts — a guide dog.
“A cane is hard to relate to. It’s a social barrier for most people,” Flower said. “When you have a guide dog, people want to talk to you about the dog and the social barriers aren’t there as much.”
“Having a dog has been a conversation starter, even a source of pickup lines,” remarked Jenna, who visited Guide Dogs for the Blind during a vacation to California from Canada. Her canine partner Susie has proven to be very popular with Jenna’s college friends.
Before Stacy Bassett found her dog Quebec, she used a cane, as did her twin sister, who is also visually impaired. “We used to have sword fights with our canes. We never really liked using them,” Bassett said. “I toured the Guide Dogs campus at age 8. It was an amazing day and I’ve never forgotten it. … I always knew having a guide dog was a privilege and you have to treat it like that. You are responsible for your dog. Having a guide dog is a life changer.”
Trading a cane for a guide dog proved to be a major change for Bassett and many others. People compared their guide dogs to “guided missiles” as they knew where to go and how to get there safely and quickly. But there’s a lot more to the connection than just getting from Point A to Point B. There’s a journey that both the person and the dog take along the way.
“There’s a fluidity of having a dog,” Bassett said. “What actually happened with all my dogs I’ve had is they have enhanced my life beyond independent travel. My grades skyrocketed in high school because my self esteem improved and my confidence grew with having a guide dog. It’s like having a little piece of my soul outside my body.”
For Eryn Stubblefield, her dog Latke, is a major part of her life, offering confidence, support and safety.
“Not only am I a woman, but I’m a blind woman,” she said. “I never felt completely safe before. But even though Latke is smaller for her breed, people perceive her as larger and people who might harass me are not an issue now.”
However dogs, like people, are not perfect. Jenna recalled after a stern lecture to the students from a teacher in college that sleeping in class is not permitted, Susie let out a very audible snore that sent the students and the teacher into hysterics.
Welcoming a dog into the family is a big moment for anyone, but finding the right canine companion for a child who is visually challenged can be an epic and memorable journey. Guide Dogs for the Blind can help a child adjust to having a dog to care for through the Canine Buddy Program, which uses guide dogs who “didn’t quite make it,” according to Flower.
Other programs include workshops and a youth academy during which clients are introduced to the services and eligibility requirements to be matched with a guide dog.
Olson recalled his experiences at a Guide Dogs for the Blind camp, where he was introduced to a dog. The pandemic forced the camps to go virtual, but Flower hopes the organization will be able to host a camp in person later this year near Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Oregon Campus. The camp, for people ages 18-24, would give people the chance to spend time with a dog while going on hikes, toasting marshmallows and having fun and learning what it means to have a guide dog.
Headquartered in San Rafael, Guide Dogs for the Blind prepares highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or visually impaired. All of its services are provided free of charge. The group receives no government funding. More than 15,000 guide teams have graduated from Guide Dogs for the Blind since it was founded in 1942.
“A very small part, really, of a guide dog’s life is work,” Flower said. “The majority of their time is just being a dog. Dogs have emotional needs just like we do. They are like having a best friend… We can learn a lot from them.”