San Rafael resident Ken Tarrant was in his thirties when he began to lose his sight.
His mother, who was blind, had a guide dog in the 1970s. But Tarrant said he wasn’t ready for his own dog until about three years ago.
Now, he says, he doesn’t know what he would do without his guide dog, Whirly.
“I’ve never been a very good traveler with the cane. I was very careful,” said Tarrant, who works at Morgan Stanley Financial Advisors. through the park, to my office in downtown San Rafael.
“Whirly navigates, and she stops on curbs in no time. She navigates around obstacles, trash cans and things on the sidewalk. And every night we go for a walk around the neighborhood.
Tarrant and Whirly have been side by side for over a year thanks to Guide Dogs for the Blind. Based in Terra Linda, the organization celebrates 80 years as the largest guide dog school in North America this year – breeding and rearing more than 16,000 guide dog teams in the United States and Canada since 1942. .
The non-profit organization trains service dogs and offers preparation assistance to people who are blind or visually impaired. All services for clients are provided free of charge, including personalized training and financial assistance for veterinary care.
At the San Rafael headquarters, approximately 30 puppy breeders and approximately 50 club members, including puppy sitters, work with the dogs. One of the organization’s most significant changes over the past 10 years has been to shift to positive reinforcement training – using a reward for desired animal behaviors – which is now standard practice for teaching. service dogs,” said Christine Benninger, President and CEO.
Staff at the nonprofit continued to provide modified services to clients during the pandemic.
“We never turned anyone down if they needed services,” Benninger said. “I’m very proud of the fact that for the past two years we’ve had no community spread here at Guide Dogs.”
The main challenge of the pandemic was training puppies to navigate different social situations, she said. Dogs normally learn to lead their partner safely through many crowded areas, from shopping malls to airplanes, and have had less exposure in the past two years due to the pandemic.
Dogs continued to be adopted throughout the pandemic. Novato resident Theresa Stern, the nonprofit’s vice president of customer services, now has a new guide dog named Wills.
Stern, who has worked at Guide Dogs for 23 years, recently started a podcast called “The Central Bark,” in which she interviews staff, puppy handlers and customers.
“I’ve been legally blind all my life and got my first guide dog in the late 90s,” Stern said. “The world was black and white, then I got a guide dog and the world was in color.”
Over the years, Stern has taken dogs hiking in Marin and traveled throughout the United States and Mexico.
“Each of the dogs has their own personality and their own point of view. Wills is super enthusiastic – he loves to work,” Stern said.
This kind of feedback is what drives coach Melanie Harris to call her work “the best work in the world.”
“It’s really empowering to be able to see our clients regain some independence with the help of these dogs,” Harris said.
Looking ahead, Benninger has goals for the organization, hoping to expand the services available to guide owners of dogs like Tarrant and Stern.
As pandemic restrictions lift, Guide Dogs is taking over in-person events, Benninger said. The organization is currently in need of volunteers as the campus returns to more on-site work. This summer, events featuring puppy breeders on campus will once again be live. In the fall, an in-person anniversary gala is scheduled for October.
Other customer education programs, such as mobility skills clinics, are in the works, Benninger said.
The organization also began funding a research program using $2 million from donors to study improving guide dog “graduation” rates, without raising more animals. The current percentage of dogs becoming a K-9 Breeder or Buddy is currently 40-50%, and she hopes to increase that number to 60-75%.
The organization aims to help young clients by expanding the Canine Buddy Program to offer veterinary service assistance to young clients using a companion dog.
“We want to make sure people who need a canine companion can find one and don’t have to worry if they can’t afford veterinary care. That veterinary care will always be available,” Benninger said.
Plans are also in place to extend services to people who can no longer manage a guide dog due to aging or illness, by providing them with a companion dog.
“Loneliness can be as detrimental to a person as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Benninger said.
The ultimate goal is to open up more companionship opportunities for customers, even if they can no longer handle a guide dog, she said.
“So that we can serve our customers from young children to the end of their lives,” Benninger said.