SAN RAFAEL; Calif. -- A Bay Area guide dog is school has provided highly trained dogs to blind and visually impaired individuals for nearly eight decades.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit located in San Rafael and is committed to helping the blind community gain a sense of independence through guide dogs.
"Our mission is to give people the independence that everyone deserves in order to live the life that they want to live," said Christine Benninger, CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. "Our dogs do so many things other than just guiding our clients. Their first and primary job is to ensure that our clients can travel safely from one point to another."
Guide Dogs for the Blind is the largest guide dog school in North America. Since 1942, the school has trained 16,000 dogs and counting to assist blind individuals.
"In addition to important tasks, guide dogs are so much more. They are soulmates," said Benninger. "They are best friends and a bridge into the community because blindness is isolating. When you can't connect with somebody through sight and you are traversing the world with a cane, people are avoiding you. When you are traversing the world with a guide dog, everyone wants to talk to you. That is one of the key things that people love about traveling with a guide dog."
Guide Dogs for the Blind trains Labradors Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and a mix of the two breeds as guide dogs.
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"The reason that we use Labs and Golden Retrievers because of the fact that one, they are very sociable dogs, they love to work, and they love to serve," said Benninger. "They form strong bonds with their person and they can be taught to walk in a straight line, which is something that is really important for a guide dog."
Puppies begin guide dog training a few days after they are born and begin the socialization process in a variety environments with volunteers. Guide dogs receive thorough training until they are eighteen-months-old.
Once a guide dog is paired with a client, the new duo spend two weeks at the Guide Dog Campus and receive training to adapt to the client's lifestyle and put into real-life situations.
"To be a guide dog, only the best of the best dogs can make it all the way through and become a guide dog," said Benninger. "Being a guide dog is the most challenging of all service dog work."
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Graham Norwood is a client of Guide Dogs for the Blind and was paired with Malcolm the Labrador Retriever in March of 2021. Norwood was born legally blind and diagnosed with a rare retinal condition called Leber Congenital Amaurosis. Norwood had limited peripheral vision that was deteriorating throughout his life.
In 2019, he decided to take a chance and try a new gene therapy procedure. Unfortunately, the procedure did not go according to plan and made his vision substantially worse. That is when he decided to contact Guide Dogs for the Blind to find a canine companion.
"Malcolm has helped me in several ways, I am able to go a lot more quickly," said Norwood. "He is just sort of weaving in and out of traffic. He is basically a dog version of a New York City cab driver. He is just a great companion. We are ready to take on the world."
Once a guide dog and the recipient receives necessary training, Guide Dogs for the Blind provides lifelong veterinary care and essential services for the guide dog.
"I am inspired by our mission on a daily basis because we change lives," said Benninger. "Giving somebody their independence is huge. All of us want to be independent and be able to live the life that we want to live. Essentially that is what we do at Guide Dogs."
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit and relies solely on generous donations from the community. To donate, visit their website.
Tune into the Canine Heroes Virtual Gala on June 6th. Register for the event here.