Fur and Steel - Part II: The Changing Scene

“I’ve always believed in living life in the possibility.”  Mary Sue Dobbin

How Do They Do That?

It’s a common refrain uttered by amazed passers-by as they observe a blind person and their dog guide smoothly navigating through a crowd or across a busy street.  These dynamic duos have been a part of the American landscape for over seventy-one years. 

Training a dog to guide takes approximately four months.  “A guide dog is an actual travel aid,” explains Michele Pouliot, Director of Training for Guide Dogs For The Blind in San Raffael California.  “The dog is responsible that the person traveling is on a safe travel line away from obstacles on the left, obstacles on the right, overhead obstacles, and obstacles in front.  The dog has a responsibility during its work, every moment of travel,” she says. 

Dogs are being trained to do so many different types of work these days.  When asked how guide work is different from what service dogs do, Pouliot says that guide dogs have to make choices.  Dogs learn through experience.  She explains the complexities of the work this way.  “The dog has to look ahead, size up a situation, and take the initiative to guide the handler through or around the situation without any direction from its handler.”  Another difference between guide work and service work is that the “Service dog is being trained to always respond an exact way to a given command.” explains Pouliot.  This is sometimes referred to as classical conditioning. 

Guide dogs receive this same kind of training for the first half of their training experience, “But half way through training, for a guide dog things change,” Pouliot continues.  “That’s when the concept of intelligent disobedience is introduced.  The dog starts learning that the handler is not always someone it can count on.  With a guide dog, when I say forward, I’m at that point actually asking the dog, go forward if you can…” She continues, “A blind handler doesn’t always have the right information, so at times they’re going to accidentally think they know what’s right and the dog is going to have to be very assertive to say you are wrong!”   This process is repeated over and over through the second half of training.  Eventually the dog learns that sometimes it has to disobey, and make choices.  “The balance to this is the handler still has to be the alpha in the relationship.”  This process has been tweaked and refined over the past seventy-one years.

The Changing Picture
The population served by guide dog schools is beginning to change.  Medical advances in prevention and treatment of eye diseases has brought a decrease in the number of younger applicants for dog guides.  While Macular Degeneration, an eye disease which effects the central vision of an individual, seems to be on the increase in older Americans, the current pool of “retrains,” people who are currently dog guide handlers, is aging.  By 2030 twenty percent of the American population will be over 65.  Currently, 52 percent of Americans over 65 have a disability.  Because of the shear growth in the senior population, this number is expected to double by 2025. 

What this means for guide dog schools is that many of their graduates may develop additional disabilities.  The schools have already begun to make changes in their training routines.  Pouliot says most of the changes Guide Dogs For The Blind has made in their training program have come as a result of the needs of their graduates.   

The Future Is Now
Mary Sue Dobbin, 55, and Maureen Pranghoffer, 46, are both graduates of Guide Dogs For The Blind.  Both women are totally blind and have developed secondary disabilities.  Dobbin has been a dog guide handler for 21 years and Pranghoffer for 16 years. 

Dobbin has Fibro Myalgia and two types of arthritis, one of which affects her spine.  She is working with her third dog.  She was always very active.  She was the first blind Montessori teacher in the country and opened her own school.  She would walk to and from school, which was a total of three miles a day.  The chronic pain she deals with now allows her to walk only about six blocks at a time.  She says, “It’s not really productive walking because I’m so tired when I’m done.”  She continues, “I’ve had to scale back my life.  I’ve changed churches because of the steps, and I haven’t been able to do my own banking for two years.”  This has sent her into a deep depression.  Her lack of mobility has been emotionally immobilizing as well.  She says, “It has created a real drain on my energy.”  While she has medication to help her cope with the pain, she says, “You get to the point where you don’t even want to go out because of all of the issues.  How far can I walk if we have to park far away?  Can I handle the steps at this place?” 

Pranghoffer has been a functional quadriplegic since she was injured in an automobile accident in 1996.  She ran a program to teach people how to be Ham radio operators.  She is active in her church and has her own home transcription business.  “I really miss guiding,” she says.  Pranghoffer was a six-time dog guide handler before her accident.  Now she has to be accompanied anywhere she goes by a Personal Care Attendant.  She was trained in using a white cane with her power wheel chair through a local rehab center.  “Still, it’s not the same as having a dog,” she explains.