American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2022 CANES AND CANINES
Based on a Conversation with Jane Flower and Ethan Edwards
From the Editor: "Why don't you have a dog?" Most of us who are blind hear this question time after time as we move through our daily lives. Only a small percentage of blind people use guide dogs, but the image of an intelligent, highly trained dog helping a blind person navigate stairs and street crossings is firmly established in the public mind. Whether to use a cane or a guide dog is a highly personal choice, and each individual must weigh a variety of factors before deciding to go for guide dog training.
One guide dog school, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), hosts an annual summer program to teach blind youth about the advantages and responsibilities involved in working with a dog. This article is based on an interview with Youth Outreach Specialist Jane Flower and GDB Camp alumnus Ethan Edwards.
"I first heard about Guide Dogs for the Blind when I was just a little kid," explains Ethan Edwards, a college student from Illinois. "I got a couple of videos about the organization when I was seven or eight, and I was sold on it right away. People kept telling me I was still too young to get a dog, so I waited it out, but I never changed my mind."
When he was fifteen, Ethan learned that GDB sponsors a summer camp for young people who are thinking about getting a guide dog. The camp is located near GDBs campus in Boring, Oregon. Students who wish to attend the camp are asked to write an essay about why they want to get a guide dog. Ethan attended GDB Camp for two summers in a row, and the experience helped him finalize his decision.
"GDB Camp has three purposes," explains Youth Outreach Specialist Jane Flower. "It gives youth who are blind or have low vision a chance to socialize with other visually impaired youth from all over the country. It provides fun activities that promote independence. Finally, camp provides an opportunity for young people to learn about living and working with a guide dog." Recreational outings at camp have included kayaking and whitewater rafting. Although the program had to be virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held in person again in 2022.
GDB hosted its first youth program with four students during the summer of 2008. Today there are two programs each summer, one for students ages fourteen through seventeen and one for young people ages eighteen to twenty-four. The program is free of charge, apart from transportation to and from the camp. However, if families need assistance with transportation, GDB can help.
The high point of every camp session comes when each student is allowed to keep and care for a dog overnight. "The experience shows the students that having a dog is a big responsibility," Jane Flower explains. "They learn how to feed, water, and relieve their dog. They have a fun time learning how to groom their dog, and they get lots of time for dog snuggling."
The camp experience emphasizes that students need strong travel skills in order to work with a dog effectively. "Camp helped me focus on the orientation and mobility (O&M) skills I'd need so I could work with a dog," Ethan recalls. "I got my O&M instructor to work with me on specific areas where I needed to be stronger. That really helped me build confidence." Ethan's O&M instructor was present when a representative from GDB visited to conduct a pre-training evaluation. The instructor asked questions and incorporated ideas from GDB into Ethan's O&M lessons.
Before a student is accepted for training with a guide dog, GDB conducts an extensive three-part evaluation at the student's home. In the first section of the interview, the GDB instructor gets to know the student. What do they like to do? What are their plans and goals? Why do they want a guide dog?
Next the GDB instructor goes for a walk with the student to assess the student's mobility skills. First the student walks using a long white cane. Then the instructor holds a guide-dog harness and the student takes another walk, holding the harness handle. This walk attempts to simulate the experience of working with a dog. The student even has to give praise and pat the air where the dog would be.
Finally the instructor asks the student about the kind of dog they would like to receive. GDB trains Labrador and golden retrievers as well as a Labrador/golden retriever cross breed.
Ethan Edwards applied for a guide dog in the fall of 2019. He was scheduled to begin training in the summer of 2020, but due to COVID, his training had to be postponed. Finally, near the end of his senior year in high school, Ethan got a call letting him know that he could begin training in a week. "I was thrilled!" Ethan says. "My teachers knew I'd been working toward this for a long time, and they did everything they could to help me complete my schoolwork so I could go."
In May 2021 Ethan spent twelve days training at GDB. He returned home with a beautiful yellow Lab named Ginsburg, the guide dog he had dreamed of since he was a child.
Today Ethan is enrolled at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Illinois. "Having a dog makes navigating the campus a lot easier for me," he says. "For instance, I find the dog helps me make straighter street crossings." However, the public still needs to be educated about guide dogs. "I take every opportunity to explain to people about how the dog helps me and things like not petting the dog while it's in harness. We still have a long way to go."
For more information about youth programs at Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit https://www.guidedogs.com/get-a-guide-dog/youth-programs or call 800-295-4050.