The instructors are our matchmakers. Tonight they decide which dog I will receive tomorrow morning.
Before class begins, the instructors gather information about the activity level of the handlers, whether the dogs will be worked in the country or city (or both), and which types of public transport we use. They visit first-time applicants to assess how fast they walk and how strong a pull they want from the guide dog. For re-trains like me, they review notes from our prior class and conduct phone interviews.
Meanwhile, each instructor is training a “string” of about 8 dogs. After about 2 months of training on town routes, they determine preliminary matches between students and dogs, mostly based on pace and pull. Their description of this process reminds me of 1st-grade vocabulary tests with pictures on one side of the page and matching words on the other side in random order, so lines can be drawn connecting the pairs. Our instructors have photos of us, and photos of the dogs, and pencil in our connections. I often hear that owners look like their dogs (or vice versa), but the instructors claim they don’t try to match our pictures. Still, I might look into botox treatments if I get a bulldog (The Seeing Eye used to train bulldogs, but today they told us they no longer do, so I’m safe in this regard).
During the 3rd and final months of guide-dog training, as the instructors begin training the dogs in a wider range of environments, including NYC and country roads, they continue to refine these potential matches. Some dogs are country dogs who prefer a nice, quiet life, and don’t get distracted by roaming animals. Some are city dogs who enjoy crowds and cultural events, busy sidewalks, and cars whizzing by. My dog needs to be happy with both, given the time I spend traveling to meetings, conferences, and rural field sites.
When the instructors are confident they have identified a good match, the student gets a confirmed class date. I heard on May 20th that I was accepted into the June 27 class, which has 24 students and about 6 lead instructors.
But decisions are not final until they work with us in person. So yesterday and today were devoted to “Juno” walks in which the instructor acts as the guide dog “Juno”. We work over town routes, giving the instructor the basic commands, “Juno forward”, “Juno right”, “Juno left.” And we practice basic obedience commands, “Juno heel,” “Juno come,” and “Juno sit.” Praise is an important part of working with our dogs, so we also must praise Juno when she responds correctly. My instructor, Victoria, usually received a “good girl.” But Whit was male. I think I got a few glares when I threw in a couple of “good boys” by mistake. I sometimes wonder what a passerby who doesn’t know about the school must think – oh that poor girl wants a guide dog – lucky for her she has a good friend who will play pretend.
So tonight I wait, and wonder. I’ll probably have dreams with a parade of labs, golden retrievers, and shepherds streaming by. Tomorrow I’ll send a photo.