From personality to pace, new students to retrains, young adults to seniors, there’s a lot that goes into preparing for a class of 10 students and 10 dogs.
Students arrive at GDA four to five times a year for 28 days of class to learn to work with and care for their new guide dog partners, but it takes GDA’s guide dog instructors months to prepare for the arrival of each class.
“About a month before class, we do our final testing with the dogs. We work them indoors and outdoors, in busy malls, high-traffic areas and neighborhoods — situations we know they will encounter when they are working with their partners,” said Jamie Viezbicke, one of GDA’s licensed instructors. “We work blindfolded with each dog. We have absolutely no vision and, like the students, we have to rely solely on the dog to guide us safely.”
This final testing determines which dogs are ready to be matched with the next incoming class. While there are only 10 students in each class, the instructors have a field of 30 or so dogs from which to choose the perfect matches. Every dog will have had between six months and a year of formal training with the instructors who work with, train and track the progress of each dog. Then it’s time to learn about the students who will be in the class and start the process of matching each one with a guide dog.
“We read over the individual student files, which gives us valuable information that we’ll consider to help us determine the best dog for each individual,” Viezbicke said.
“All incoming students already have had an in-home interview with one of the instructors or sent in a video. In the students’ files, we learn about where they live, what they do on a daily basis, how busy and active they are, how fast they walk, if there are other people and/or pets in the household. We usually have two, sometimes three, dogs in mind per student, but the final decision isn’t made until class starts.
The week before class final preparations are made for the students’ arrival. Each student’s name is posted in braille on the door of his or her assigned room. And a few new “furnishings” are brought in for the dogs, including a crate, dog bed and bowls for food and water. Dogs that are potentially going to be in class are brought up to the dorm building to expose them to the new environment they will be living in. And, each student receives a call from one of the three instructors who will work with the class during their 28 days of training.
“We call them to see if they have any last-minute questions and to give them reminders of what to bring. One of the most important items — comfortable shoes,” Viezbicke said. “We do a lot of walking during training. Up to five miles a day.”
Graduate services has taken care of travel arrangements for students who are coming from long distances but it is the instructors who meet the students at the airport and take them to what will be their “home” for the next four weeks. Students always arrive on a Sunday but they don’t get their dogs until a couple of days later, this is known as “dog day.”
“For us, class starts the minute we pick up the students from the airport and/or meet the local students at GDA,” Viezbicke said. “Upon arrival at the school, students receive an orientation of the dorm building and their room.”
After everyone is settled, it’s time for dinner and the students and instructors gather in the dining room. Class is now officially in session.
“Those first few days we learn more about the students’ mobility, pace, and pull needed from a dog with ‘Juno’ work — this is when an instructor will wear an adapted harness and lead the student. It tells a lot about the student and helps the instructors to finalize the match.
“We also are getting to know the students beyond their files,” Viezbicke said. “We learn a little about their personality, which is important, because our dogs also have their own personalities. When we’re deciding between a couple of dogs for a student, sometimes you get a gut feeling and it’s usually because they have complementary personalities.” It is important at GDA that not only the dogs match the student, but that each dog will be matched with a person that they will be happy with as well. That is a large part of what makes a team successful.
“You do as much as you can to prepare ahead of time but some things just have to be worked out after the students arrive,” Viezbicke said. “When you have a class with one student in their 20s and another in their 80s, it’s likely that we’re going to make some modifications to accommodate the different needs of each student. Typically, we’ll have a mix of first-time students and returning students and a range of ages; the summer class tends to have mostly younger students, as they are out of school for the summer.”
Another variable the instructors have to consider is the weather, as summer in Sylmar can be quite hot, requiring additional preparation and planning.
“The June/July class is the most challenging. Typically, the dogs that are potential matches for students in the summer class already have been introduced to wearing booties that protect their feet,” Viezbicke said. “When the temperatures are too hot, in addition to breaking up the routes so we are working during the coolest parts of the day, we’ll begin working indoor areas, like malls, earlier in the training.”
For Viezbicke and her fellow instructors, every class is special, every student is special and every guide dog team is special.
“The favorite part of my job is seeing people come in and watching them change over the course of class,” Viezbicke said. “We have students who come in that have never had a dog so seeing that relationship develop is always great. Or having an 83-year-old man come in for his first guide dog. It touches your heart.”