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Enhancing Lives, One Guide Dog at a Time

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 17, 2022 3:02 am

Enhancing Lives, One Guide Dog at a Time

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 17, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Christine Benninger is the CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America. She shares about the unique training process for these extraordinary animals and the special bond they share with their owner.

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Here's Christine with this beautiful story. Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1942 to serve individuals who were blinded during World War II. The very first founders of Guide Dogs for the Blind were military dog trainers. They had the idea that dogs could make a real difference in people's lives and helping them negotiate life with more freedom and more independence.

We breed labs, golden retrievers, and then we breed a cross between the two. Dogs are individually just as different as people, so dog personalities wants needs the way they act. Each dog is unique, but that works for us and the reason is our clients are unique. Part of the magic of Guide Dogs for the Blind is the matching process and finding exactly the right match and that match is based on what your lifestyle is.

If you're somebody who works in downtown Manhattan and takes, you know, a train and then a bus to get into your office every day and you have to walk the streets of Manhattan, that's a little bit of a different dog than, you know, if you're living in a suburb and, you know, maybe you're doing volunteer work every day or you're meeting friends for coffee. Different dogs like to work in different environments. We match by personality. If you are somebody who's super outgoing and really likes talking with people, we're going to match you with a dog that's super outgoing and is going to elicit that interaction for you. If you're somebody who's a little more reserved and, you know, you just want to get from point A to point B, you really don't want to be talking with a lot of people along the way, we're going to match you with a dog that's a little more reserved and won't elicit as much. We also make certain that we match our clients' preferences. We have clients that their visual impairment allows them to see dark colors, so we'll match them with a black lab or allows them to see lighter colors, so we'll match them with a yellow lab or a golden retriever. The matching process is complicated, as you can well imagine. You've got a lot of different traits that we have to match for the person, and, you know, dogs each have their different traits as well.

And that's why I say there's always a bit of magic in every single match that's made. We were the first service dog organization ever to employ positive reinforcement training methods. Traditional training methods basically set a dog up to fail and then you punish them for failure, with the theory being that the dog remembers that and doesn't want to be punished again. Positive reinforcement training is setting the dog up for success and rewarding them for success. It feels a lot better to be set up for success and being rewarded for that versus being set up for failure. It's made a huge difference for our dogs. So the interesting thing is that the skills of a dog trained with essentially punishment-based training versus positive reinforcement training, their skills are just as good.

The difference is the excitement about working. So a punishment-based dog who's been trained in that methodology isn't excited about going to work because what they're thinking is that, oh my god, if I get something wrong, I'm going to be punished. Dogs that are trained with a positive reinforcement methodology are so excited to work. It's like, oh my god, the harness is out.

Yes, yes, yes, let's go. And honestly, that makes a huge difference and it just makes you feel better too. The other interesting thing is that when we were using punishment-based training, it took us 24 weeks to train a guide dog in their skills. Positive reinforcement training, it now takes us 12 weeks. So you can see there's so many benefits to it, not only from the psychological aspects to the dogs, but they learn much faster. And that allows us to be able to train more guide dogs and train more clients. People have to really commit to the guide dog lifestyle. In order for a guide dog to be successful, you have to get them onto a routine. Guide dogs are trained not to relieve themselves and harness. So we all need bathroom breaks, right? You need to make certain that you're consistently feeding at the same times, that you're consistently relieving at the same times.

You have to take your dog to the vet. I mean, so even the way that we interface with our clients is all unique. We don't charge for any of our services. We fly people out to our campuses. They live with us for two weeks and train with their dogs.

We fly them home and then we continue to follow up with our clients to make sure that things are working well. And in addition to that, we also pay for all the veterinary costs over the dog's lifetime to make certain that no one is put in a position of saying, do I pay my rent or do I take, you know, my dog to the vet? Our dogs are trained athletes, have to be kept in peak condition. So we want to always make certain that our guide dogs have the best medical care. And all of our work is supported through donation. It's a huge community that supports guide dogs for the blind.

We have approximately 300 staff members and over 4,000 volunteers. So we actually start training our dogs at three days of age. We have a whole group of volunteers called cuddlers who start cuddling our babies.

And that's literally what they do. They cuddle them so that these babies become used to people, become used to human touch. And there's nothing scary about a person starting very early on with very gentle, loving touch, which the puppies react to, obviously, in a positive way. It says a lot about our breeders.

A brand new mama, allowing somebody to sit with her babies and hold her babies at three days of age is pretty remarkable. Our clients range in age from 14 to 94. What the qualifications are for getting a guide dog are that you are legally blind, that you have a need to go somewhere every day. That doesn't mean that you have to have a job.

You know something, every day, at a minimum, I get out and I go for a walk. And the reason for that is the team needs to work together every day. Otherwise, you as a handler lose your skills or the guide dog loses their skills.

In order to keep that team working seamlessly together, you've got to get out and work every day. The third requirement is that you already have the orientation and mobility skills. Guide dogs are not GPS systems. You can't just say to your guide dog, take me to the nearest Starbucks.

You have to know essentially where that Starbucks is. And then you need to give your dog the commands for how to get there and your dog will get you there safely. And the fourth requirement is that you are living somewhere that will support a guide dog. Oftentimes, particularly in rural environments, there are a lot of off-leash aggressive dogs. If a guide dog feels that they're going to be attacked every time that they walk out their door, typically, then they're going to stop working.

So if people meet those four criteria, then we bring them into our school and they get a guide dog. Nearly 16,000 teams have graduated since our founding. Very proud of that. And you've been listening to Christine Benninger, CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. And my goodness, what a scaled operation she's running. And it's at the behest of so many donors who want to see this happen. When we come back, more of this great American story of Guide Dogs for the Blind and so much more.

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Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. And we return to our American stories and to Christine Beninger's story, the CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Here's Christine to talk about the dogs and all that goes into the unique training for these very special animals. When you look at service dogs and all the different things that service dogs do, guide work is the most complicated for two reasons. One is that guide dogs have to get everything right 100% of the time. They can't just walk their person into traffic once or they can't walk you into a light pole once, so guide dogs get no second chances. They've got to do it right. Secondly, they have to evaluate whether the command they're given is going to keep the team safe or not, and if the guide dog believes it won't keep the team safe, it'll have to disobey the command and do exactly the opposite.

Now, that's even tough for humans. I don't know how often you say no to your boss, but that's a hard thing to do, and dogs live in a hierarchy, so basically saying no to their boss, it takes a special dog to be able to do that. If a dog is given a command to cross the street and that handler is not hearing the electric car that's coming around the corner, the dog has to pull their handler away from the street rather than walking into the street, so that's an example of what we call intelligent disobedience. Guide dogs are trained to do all kinds of things. When you walk into a room or you walk onto a bus, they are trained to find you an open seat, so they'll take you to the first available open seat. Many of our clients train their dogs for very specific things, like we have a client, she said, wherever I go, I've always got, you know, my water bottle with me, and so I'm always looking for recycling bins, so she's trained her guide dog when she needs to to find a recycling bin so that she can get rid of her water bottle. You can train your dog to take you to Starbucks. Once your dog knows where Starbucks is and that's where you go on a regular basis, you can just say, take me to Starbucks, all kinds of all kinds of things like that. What I'll call the magic of guide dogs is that the team becomes so close, because the team is together 24-7 and relies on each other. Our guide dogs are not trained in being able to sense medical changes in our clients. Somehow they get to know their person well enough that they do. This happened about two years ago.

We have a client that does work in Manhattan. She works in one of those buildings that is like a gazillion floors, and so you have to take a very specific elevator to your bank of floors, and so her guide dog knows exactly which elevator to go to, and one particular day her guide dog didn't take her to the bank of elevators, but took her to a group of couches that were sort of off the lobby, and when she got to the group of couches she realized she wasn't feeling very well. She sat down and had a stroke. So did her guide dog, I cry, sorry, did her guide dog know that she was going to have a stroke? No, but the guide dog knew something was wrong. What our guide dogs do is take care of their people, so the guide dog knew getting in that elevator probably wasn't the best thing to do.

Getting her to a safer spot was the best thing to do. Those kinds of stories happen all the time, not through training, but through that relationship that grows between a guide dog and their person. What I find really remarkable about our clients is the different types of things that people do. Our clients are mothers raising three children. We have people who are business people.

We have people who are chefs, who are musicians, who are teachers. We actually have a couple of clients that have just competed in the Paralympics over in Japan. What a guide dog does is give people confidence to be able to do what they want to do in life, and so as a result you see these just remarkable things that our clients do. We have a client that, he's a professional hiker. He's hiked with his guide dog the Pacific Crest Trail. He's hiked the Appalachian Trail. I mean, he's hiked all over the world, and he does that as someone who's blind with a guide dog out for days and days and days by himself.

All of that, in my mind, is truly remarkable. Guide Dogs for the Blind has made a concerted effort to target youth. Kids have a tendency to not want to be sort of called out as different, right, and so much of who we become as adults is based on what we experience as a young person. So canine buddies, they're not guide dogs, but they are companion dogs, well-trained companion dogs, for individuals who are too young yet to get a guide dog.

We do have a lower age limit, but we don't have an upper age limit. We're giving canine buddies to families with children as young as five, and what a canine buddy does is not only start to orient kids around dogs, but most importantly is building their confidence. You know, hearing from parents about how, you know, their five-year-old was not making friends in school, afraid to dress themselves, wouldn't go to the bathroom on their own, mommy had to be there, and once they had a canine buddy, all of a sudden wanting to be independent, getting dressed on their own, starting to make friends. They're the kind of coolest kid on the block with this really neat dog. Some kids have night terrors with a canine buddy. Those night terrors go away, so canine buddies, while they're not specifically service dogs, make a huge difference in the life of very young children. Then we have a whole host of programs that are targeted towards high school kids. That's a very sort of vulnerable time, right?

Wasn't my best years if I think about high school. So we have things like what we call GDB camp for high school kids to get together with other kids with similar disabilities. They actually have the opportunity to work with a guide dog, sleep with a guide dog overnight, plus just have a great time just being campers, just being kids. We fly kids in from all over North America, and there's all kinds of fun things to do, you know, tandem bike riding, canoeing, swimming. This last year we actually had the kids visit a llama farm and have the opportunity to walk a llama.

They all agreed that walking a guide dog was a lot easier than walking a llama. Oftentimes kids that have a visual disability don't know anybody else who does, so lifelong friendships are made. It's a great place. It's a fun place. We've grown from a very small fledgling organization to really, you know, the largest guide school in North America. That's not easy, so I'm very grateful to my counterparts who were a part of this organization and set the stage for who we are today. Because of their efforts, we've been able to grow. We've been able to fund ourselves and really become the leader in the guide dog industry.

It's a huge community that supports our work. I've always been inspired by the difference that animals make in our lives. It's really an honor to be a part of this organization because this is an organization that saves lives.

It gives people their independence and allows people to live the life that they want to live, and I can't think of anything more inspirational than that. And a great job as always on the production and the storytelling by Madison. And a special thanks to Christine Benninger, the CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. To learn more and to help support their mission, go to guidedogs.com. And by the way, this is just a perfect example of American generosity at work. She's working at a nonprofit. People are donating money. People are volunteering.

They're cuddling with dogs. All of these things they're doing to help a stranger's life just move along a little better. And my goodness, what she said about what the dog's mission was, what our guide dogs do is take care of their people. And they do it not through the mere training, but through the strong relationship they build with their client.

And anyone who has an animal knows what that relationship means. And a special thanks to all the people who support this great organization. Again, go to guidedogs.com if you love the mission and go ahead and help them do what they do.

The story of Christine Benninger, the story of Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the story in the end of The Generosity of the American People, here on Our American Stories. With CheapCaribbean.com, you can get more food, more drinks, and more fun for less money on your all-inclusive beach vacation. Like bottomless margaritas? Yes.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-03 13:52:35 / 2022-12-03 14:01:31 / 9

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