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Healthy People interview: Danielle Larsen, guide dog puppy raiser, guide dog owner and handler

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ReadHealthy: What is a guide dog? Who do they serve, and what do they help do in the lives of the humans they work with?


Danielle Larsen: A guide dog is a specially trained service animal. Their job is to guide someone who is blind or visually impaired (VI) and help them navigate through daily travel. These dogs are trained to avoid obstacles (such as poles, garbage cans, people, signs etc)., to stop at the beginning of cross walks, to stop at the tops and bottoms of stairs so that a handler (person utilizing the dog) can orient themselves with whether or not the steps are ascending or descending, and to avoid traffic. A guide dog's primary role is to keep their handler safe from all the things the handler is unable to see around them. The dogs anticipate barriers, obstacles, and dangers and make decisions about the best way to move their handler around such a situation safely. Guide dogs are unique in that there is a lot of decision making that they are responsible for. All service dogs, no matter how they help someone, are task-oriented, however guide dogs have a the unique task of decision-making.  Guide dogs allow for a heightened level of independence, freedom, mobility, and ease when traveling. And, usually, having two brains to problem solve in new situations is better than one.

RH:  When and how did you first get involved working with guide dogs?


DL: I first started working with The Seeing Eye in college. The Seeing Eye is one of about 15 schools in the United States that train guide dogs for blind and VI handlers. Handlers can choose any school in the country. The Seeing Eye is the first and most prestigious school, and one of the most well-known on the east coast. The Seeing Eye was founded by a man who was totally blind, more than eighty years ago. The Seeing Eye now breeds 400 - 600 puppies a year to be trained for guide work. About 50 - 60 percent of those dogs will become fully trained Seeing Eye dogs. What many people don’t know is that only dogs trained at The Seeing Eye are “Seeing Eye dogs.” Other dogs that work with VI handlers are called guide dogs.


Once the puppies they breed are eight weeks old, they are placed in the homes of volunteers throughout NJ and parts of PA. For about a year the dogs reside with their puppy raisers, the families responsible for these puppies. During that time, the family is responsible for basic obedience training, as well as socializing the dog to anything they are likely to see as a working guide dog, such as traffic, steps, public situations, and so on.


My college roommate, Jordan, had gotten a Seeing Eye dog before we started school at Rowan University. She had a golden retriever named VIola. Rowan had a group on campus that raised puppies for Seeing Eye. The puppy raisers on campus reached out to us and we fell in love with all that they were doing to help in the guide dog training process. We began puppy sitting and during our senior year we co-raised a Golden retriever named Xara.

RH: What was your first Seeing Eye dog training experience like? What surprises were there? What was not at all like you expected it to be?


DL: It was quite an experience raising our first puppy! We met Xara later on in the puppy-raising process than what is common because her family at the time had been unable to keep working with her. She was a 70-pound goofball. She was difficult to handle and she was a silly and energetic puppy. With every puppy, you never know quite what you are getting into. I had expected it to be fun and laid back, like all the dogs we had helped out with a little bit in the past. I was NOT expecting all the ridiculous things she did (pulling, jumping, and barking--really all things very unbecoming of a lady!).

RH: What are some skills that the puppy raiser is responsible for teaching while they are hosting a Seeing Eye dog?


1. Housebreaking. All puppies need it.

2. Obedience—sit, down, stay, come.

3.  Other commands: Nose up (no sniffing), forward (start moving).

4. How to behave around other dogs in public (ideally ignoring them).

5. How to behave in public places (stores, coffee shops).

6. Socialize them to sounds and sights of the world (cars, construction, elevators).

7. Socialize them to people (and all their weirdness--big hats, little hats, loud people, quiet people, big people, small people).

8. Manners (ignoring food, not begging, no jumping on people).

9. Household behavior: No jumping on counters or going through trash.

10: How to be quiet!

RH: After a puppy raiser like yourself works with the dog, what are the next steps on their journey to being matched with a person? How does this process work?

DL: After a puppy raiser has a dog for a year, the dog is taken back to the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. There they undergo a month of medical testing to make sure they are healthy enough to work for someone. If they pass, they spend the next four to six months learning how to be a Seeing Eye Guide dog (learning how to actually guide a person now that the basic obedience skills are mastered). Once they are ready for class, trainers will start thinking about their prospective new handlers. As students request to come to "class" to get a guide dog, The Seeing Eye considers personality profiles, walking speeds, etc., and starts identifying good matches A visually impaired handler will go to The Seeing Eye school for one month, during which they will meet and train with their new guide dog under trainer supervision. The first three days the handler is at the school, trainers watch how they walk and behave, and get a feel for their standard routine and match them with a dog that walks like them, and will be up for whatever the handler's daily lifestyle is like. The dog and handler train together for 30 days before heading home to start life on their own as an independent team.

RH: You are visually impaired yourself; can you discuss your vision condition? Functionally, what activities/situations are different or more difficult for you because of your vision, or what modifications do you generally make in your daily life?


DL: I have albinism. My retina didn't develop all the way. I also don't have pigment so my eyes (or skin) can't process light the way that they should. Another component of albinism is nystagmus (involuntary muscle movement of the eye, which leads to difficulty focusing). My vision is a little lower than the "typical" person with albinism. My acuity is about 20/600.


Traveling, especially outdoors when lighting is non-adjustable, is extremely difficult. I wear sunglasses whenever it is too bright, and use a program called Zoomtext to make content on my computer screen big enough so I can read it at work. My job requires a lot of paperwork and my supervisor has worked with me to modify paperwork so that i can see it more clearly. I use a magnification program on my iPhone for that. I also have dots on my stove and microwave to mark where certain buttons are, so don’t have to get too close to the heat to see the numbers but can still feel the different numbers or temperatures. To navigate outdoors I used to use a cane, since every situation is extremely unpredictable. Traveling, again especially outdoors, is the most difficult task for me. I hated using a cane, and so instead wanted my own guide dog!


RH: How did your current guide dog, Trinity, come into your life?


DL: Trinity came into my life completely by accident. I had always wanted to train a guide dog but never thought I would be able to. One day I was looking at cute pictures of adoptable dogs in my area. I was not really looking for a dog at all, and stumbled upon her picture. My heart skipped three beats. I had never seen a more special dog in all my life, and my heart was completely stolen. I begged my roommate for two days to let me apply to adopt her "just so I could meet her." I couldn't stop talking about her. My roommate began talking to me about guide dogs. I started saying what kind of dog I would hope for (size, temperament etc.) and then my roommate said, “Well.... that sounds exactly like Trinity," It turns out she had been trying to shake me of the topic because she wanted to get me a puppy for my birthday. But in the end she felt like this was far better.


So I applied to adopt Trinity from South Jersey Rescue. A short time later the president of SJR brought her to my house. I pretty much melted on the spot. That day, 2/24/2013, I started a two-week "trial adoption" which is basically just a chance to have her hang out and see if Trinity was going to be a good fit. I told Jordan immediately that I didn't care what Trinity's future was, she was staying with me. I signed the trial adoption agreement, and three hours later texted the rescue president to let her know i HAD to adopt Trinity. I was hopelessly in love with her. I still am!

RH: When and why did you decide Trinity should be your guide dog? Why was she the right fit? What challenges did you anticipate in this process, now having had previous Seeing Eye dog experience?


DL: I decided to try to train her as a guide dog immediately. She had the personality, size, temperament; everything I was looking for. During the first three months I modeled our time after the puppy-raising period for the Seeing Eye. I would take her out, socialize her and practice daily skills. She loved it and excelled in every way. She took so well to this that I figured I would just keep going, knowing full well she may not take to the experience. I would not want her to do it if she hated it. I was nervous because I was doing this more on my own instead of with a school , so I wasn't sure people would take us seriously. I wasn't sure how she'd react to training, since her past was not tailored for guide work like the dogs from The Seeing Eye are. We both had a lot of work cut out for us, but the training process was the most amazing experience of my life. 

RH:  What about your decision to raise your own guide dog for yourself is unique, unconventional, or controversial? What argument or negative views do some people have about this arrangement? Why?

DL: Most people who train their own guide dog buy from a breeder. I adopted Trinity from a rescue, because there are so many dogs needing homes, and rescue dogs are just as capable of doing the work. A lot of people feel like people who owner-train dogs do it for so many reasons. It caused a lot of argument as to why I felt I had to do that (Was I better than a school? Would no school take me? People asked me all those things). People in general don't understand the concept well and feel that the typical guide dog school structure is the way to go. I'm not against guide dog schools; I love the Seeing Eye and the remarkable work that they do! I'm so inspired by them. But I have the time, lifestyle, and desire to train my own dog, and can help a dog in need of a family. In turn, that dog, (in this case Trinity) and I bonded, and now work together, and are constantly on the lookout for each other. As both a guide dog and just a dog, she has gone above and beyond in her role, and so many times I don’t know where I would have ended up without her. To me, it's not the breeding or the school's support that makes a dog  a guide dog; it's their desire, passion, and skill. And Trinity has all of that, wrapped up into 45 pounds of happy, sweet, and adorable.


RH: What was it like developing a working and personal relationship with Trinity? Is it challenging separating the “working dog” from the “pet”? Can you put into words what a bond between a guide dog and their handler feels like?


It is a little bit difficult to separate sometimes, because the natural desire to do "pet things" is a common impulse reaction. She does get some non-typical guide dog privileges, like sleeping in the bed with me. We have an amazing bond that just feels like more than best-friendship. In some ways I'm like her "mom" who needs to care for her, but then she takes her turn watching out for me and keeping me safe too. We take care of each other. She makes me feels so much more confident and optimistic about things that used to terrify me. You end up doing everything together, the good, bad, fun, and ugly. How can you not be totally in love with your guide dog when you literally walk steps together, all over the world, everywhere you go?
RH: How has working with Trinity on a daily basis now affected your work, social life, and confidence level?

DL: Working with Trinity has made me so much more confident and  independent, quick and sure. She makes me excited to go out instead of nervous. She has made it so much easier to do my job. My job has been remarkably supportive throughout the entire training process. My supervisor at work thinks Trinity is amazing, and always makes sure we aren't having any problems. Most of my friends have been supportive too. Some people have sort of taken a step back because they don't understand or don't like it. But I wouldn't change it. Overall, I feel like a newer, freer, happier person. When I'm out, my anxiety and frustrations are so much more in check, and Trinity has given me a whole new perspective on the importance of different things (in a good way). And truthfully she makes everything in life less stressful, easier, more doable and more fun. I'm so lucky to do life with her!

RH: How do you respond to negative comments or reactions about you and trinity at work, in social settings, from strangers, etc.? Is there an opportunity here to educate?


DL: People in the general public can be difficult. I have a very supportive work environment, however, on my daily commute to work I am asked if she's my "guard dog" "therapy dog," etc. One man thought I was high (because my eyes shake) and told me taking my "drug dog" was a good cover up.

People either are overly afraid of her, disgusted, or way too interested. I would love to see people relax a little on that. People panic because they don't understand it, and don’t understand her. So they say mean things, yell, carry on, etc., because they don't know what to do. It's okay to ask. I would LOVE to see people come and ask me about her instead of behaving irrationally. People hate the unknown. They don’t want to admit it is an unknown so instead of asking, they make  a scene. The situation would be easier on me and less embarrassing for them if they would just ask questions. On a daily basis I get to educate people about guide dogs.


RH: Can you talk about how independence, confidence, and self-sufficiency are a part of “health” for people with disabilities? How do service dogs improve the various states of health (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional)?

DL: People with disabilities often have lower self-confidence than others and can fall into a cycle of learned helplessness. However, these are all states of mind that are often forced upon them by society. Society views people with disabilities as sub-par, and as a result people with disabilities accept that viewpoint, instead of fighting it. Knowing your skills, abilities, and practicing them, and fighting within yourself to believe that you are equal, is a hard battle. Trinity helps me overcome that to some degree, because I feel like having her in my life has evened the playing field and like I am finally able to navigate streets confidently, quickly and smoothly. I feel like I can move with society instead of bumbling my way through. Dogs in general are great for people, but service dogs in particular develop an undying love for their handlers that only grows through time working together. Having a guide dog can shift your perspective because even when society treats you differently, your dog never will. Your dog takes care of you, and in turn you take care of him. It’s a simple, symbiotic relationship based on love and trust. Having a living being respond to you in such a good way makes your sense of self-worth improve so much. Trinity really shifted my views about myself and my own importance in society. 


RH:  What advice would you give to others who are considering whether they have need of a service animal? Are there signs or tips that could indicate this would be the right way to go for them, or that it might not?


DL: I would say to identify what need you have that you think a service dog might fulfill. See if someone trains dogs for that need. If not, see if you can find a person, just hypothetically even, who knows how. Consider your lifestyle and if having a dog is something you are willing to integrate into it. Remember there is time needed to groom, bathe, brush, walk, feed, and care for a dog.


Consider your financial situation as well. It's a little costly to provide food and medical care for an animal, and knowing whether you can do that is an important and realistic part of the process. That doesn't mean that if you are not rich (like me!) there is no option, but you should consider this beforehand. Be prepared for a lot of time and energy and days of frustration. Some days, especially when you and your guide dog are a new team, it can be maddening, exhausting, and frustrating. You need to know from the start that things are not always going to go perfectly.