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Holladay Journal

Volunteers vital in guide dog training

Jan 05, 2023 01:54PM ● By Collette Hayes

Fendi is a 12-week-old golden retriever/Labrador and has been in the Guide Dogs for the Blind volunteer training program for three weeks. Her formal guide dog training will begin at 15 to 18 months when she will relocate to the Boring, Oregon guide dog campus to work with professional guide dog mobility instructors. (Collette Hayes/City Journals)

Guide Dogs for the Blind provides an opportunity for volunteer puppy raisers in the Salt Lake area to prepare a golden retriever or Labrador in the first eight weeks to 18 months of a puppy’s life for formal guide dog training. Volunteers provide love, socialization and teach their guide dogs basic commands and house manners. 

On a November Saturday afternoon, Guide Dogs for the Blind: Salt Lake City, an affiliate of the largest guide dog school in North America, offered an hour presentation sponsored by the Holladay Library on what it takes to raise a puppy for the role of taking care of a visually impaired partner. The dogs participating in the program are bred in San Rafael, California and are the best of the best dogs. Beginning at eight weeks, puppies having had all of their behavior and health checks are placed with volunteer puppy trainers. Volunteers teach their pups how to walk on a leash, basic commands including how to sit, to come when called, to go to bed, and how to behave in a variety of social situations. 

Between 15 to 18 months old, the dogs are usually ready to relocate to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in Boring, Oregon for more formal training with professional guide dog mobility instructors. Formal training lasts from three to six months where the dogs learn how to take care of and keep their visually impaired partner safe. The training includes teaching the dog to be aware of its surroundings. For example, the dogs are taught to look up for tree branches or obstacles that are hanging low, to watch for oncoming traffic and to look down for stairs and curbs.

According to Mickelle Smith, Guide Dogs for the Blind representative, only 50% of the dogs in training make the cut to be guide dogs. The dogs are bred to be working dogs and if not selected as a guide dog for the visually impaired formal training programing, they will go on to do other service-related jobs. The career change dogs will be trained to help diabetics manage blood sugar levels, provide PTSD and mobility assistance or serve as a K9 buddy for a visually impaired child who may one day consider a guide dog. Dogs selected to continue and complete formal training will be matched to a visually impaired partner during a graduation ceremony.

“Some of the things considered when matching a guide dog to a blind partner is the size of the dog, ease of handling and the dogs walking pace,” Smith said. “Volunteer trainers are welcome to attend their puppy’s graduation ceremony after formal training is completed and to present the puppy to their new partner. It’s a gratifying experience for volunteers to meet the dog’s new visually impaired partner and to realize how the dog is going to change the person’s life.”

Volunteer puppy trainer Christina Evans participated in the volunteer guide dog training program 20 years ago and she recently decided to participate once again and include her entire family. Training a guide dog is hard work but provides an opportunity for the children in the family to learn how to care for and take responsibility for a puppy. Volunteers attend a dog training meeting weekly to learn how to train their puppy and to check on the progress the puppy has made.  

“As volunteer trainers one of the most important things we do is socializing the dog,” Evans said. “It is important we train our dog to be well behaved in different situations including restaurants, airports or when using public transportation so the dog will be able to demonstrate good behavior in these situations when it is full grown. Of course, it’s sad when you take the dog back to move on to formal training. The dog has become a part of the family and you love the dog, but I kind of feel like it’s like sending a kid off to college. You’re sending them off to bigger and better things. There are a lot of sad tears, but also a lot of happy tears when realizing how this puppy has the potential to significantly change a person’s life for the better.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind is run by private donations. All guide dog services are provided to the visually impaired client at no charge for the entire life of the dog.

“The guide dog client is flown out to the guide dog campus free of charge,” Smith said. “The organization pays for the client to stay on campus for two weeks and then sends them home with follow up and vet care instructions.”

Thinking about becoming a guide dog volunteer? All costs incurred during the volunteer guide dog training program including food, toys and a crate are tax deductible. Vet bills are covered by the organization. Weekly guide dog training meetings are mandatory.

For more information about becoming a volunteer with Guide Dogs for the Blind, contacts