Becoming a guide dog instructor takes years of training and shoes that are made for walking. All of GDA’s licensed instructors have completed the three year apprenticeship required to earn the license from the state of California. And, between the formal training to prepare the dogs to be matched with a blind individual and the 28 days of class during which they teach students to work as a team with their new guide dog, the GDA instructors log a lot of miles, both on their feet and on the road.
Walking a mile (or three, four or five) in the shoes of GDA’s Licensed Guide Dog Instructors
The first walk of most trainers’ days is from the office to the kennels where they are enthusiastically greeted with wiggles and wags from the dogs that they will work with for the next several months. Each trainer works with a “string” of 8-10 dogs from the time the dogs come “in for formal training” until they graduate with their blind partner, in about 4-6 months.
“The skills and attributes of a successful guide dog instructor go well beyond their ability to train dogs. All of our trainers have an exceptional work ethic. They are highly motivated individuals who are dedicated to bringing out the best in every dog they work with and they are invested in his success,” said Training Department Manager and Licensed Instructor David Ponce. “That translates to having a lot of patience and perseverance, as well as being in shape. It’s a very physical job; the trainers are literally walking these dogs through every step of their training. Some days that might be a couple of miles; other days it might be eight miles or more.”
Depending on the stage of training the instructors are in with their strings, they may work with the dogs in simple areas such as local neighborhoods or lightly congested areas, which includes teaching the dogs the basics of being a guide dog, such as walking in harness, crossing streets and learning new commands. The training then progresses to more complex areas, including busier cities, malls or train/subway travel where advanced skills are taught.
“Some dogs get it right away and for others it may take multiple attempts before they understand the concepts,” said Sean Chiles, who has been a Licensed Instructor for two years. “Seeing a dog that hasn’t been able to put everything together and the next day see the switch turn on is one of the things I enjoy most about my job.”
Being out in public on an almost daily basis, the instructors also need to have exceptional communication skills.
“Our trainers are out working with the dogs in public places and they are often approached by people interested in the program. They are ambassadors for the school as well as public educators,” said Ponce. “We welcome their questions and the opportunity to talk to them about our guide dogs and what to do when you meet a guide dog team.”
Their frequent appearances in public places require that GDA’s dogs are always looking their best.
“Sometimes a quick touch-up is necessary, but grooming is also a great opportunity for us to bond with our dogs,” said Chiles. “It’s important that the dogs bond with us. We start on that from the first day. The dogs need to know that we are the ones that are going to give love and be responsive to them every time they see us, until they are paired with their blind partners. ”
At the core of everything the instructors work on with the guide dogs in training is safety. If the dog is bonded to his partner, he will care about the team’s well-being and want to keep him or her safe and clear of danger. That includes teaching the dog to apply “intelligent disobedience,” which is when the dog may have to refuse a command given by the handler and/or do something else for the safety of the team. An example of this would be a guide dog refusing to go forward into the street when given the command because he has determined it is unsafe to cross the street. This might happen if the guide dog user was to misread the traffic or if a motorist came around a corner speeding.
In the final stage of training, the instructors will work the dogs under blindfold, which GDA Licensed Instructor Nick Terrones said he finds the most rewarding.
“We see the work we as trainers have so diligently put into the dog’s education come to life in a very realistic way,” said Terrones. “Working these dogs under blindfold is exhilarating. I train these wonderful dogs, but I have learned from them that I am always growing in my profession and there are always ways to continue to learn as an instructor.”
At the end of a day of training, the instructors return to the kennel with their dogs and get them settled in for the night. Then they return to the office to write daily reports about each dog in their string. Before the last short walk back to her office, Licensed Instructor Mindy Romero says one last thing to the dogs. “When I leave at the end of the day, I like to tell them, ‘Good night and see you tomorrow.’ Maybe they don’t get it, but I do. I fall in love with each of the dogs as if they were my own,” she said.
“A lot of people think of us as dog trainers. We are more than that. We are instructors who teach students to use the guide dogs we have trained so they can live the life they choose,” said Ponce. “Speaking on behalf of all the trainers, the most rewarding part of our job is getting updates, emails and photos from the graduates. That is fantastic. That is what gives us purpose.”
If you would like to spend a day in the shoes of a GDA instructor you can buy tickets for our popular “Day with the Trainer” raffle.
Winner will be notified on July 10.
Find more details and the order form on page 7 of our Partners newsletter: http://www.guidedogsofamerica.org/1/news-events/gda-partners-newsletter/