"What seems like the longest eight months of my life has recently ended with a finale that I had dreamed of, but had scarcely allowed myself to hope would ever happen," said Fiona Nelson.
Gandalf, a Guide Dog puppy in training whom she and her husband, Greg, had raised, became a fully-fledged Guide Dog. The momentous occasion was celebrated with a graduation ceremony held at Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, on April 13, at which 11 guide dog and human teams graduated.
"We took him everywhere we went, so he was often seen out and about around Tehachapi," she said.
After spending over a year with as his puppy raisers, Gandalf was "turned in" to Guide Dogs of America (GDA) last summer for formal training. Puppy raisers teach the puppies they are entrusted with the basics of good behavior, such as sit, come, down, heel, as well as house manners and socializing them in public.
Formal training continues these puppies' education as the professional trainers at GDA teach them everything they need to know to become a Guide Dog. This includes learning to work in harness, moving forward when given the cue, left and right turns, as well as more complex challenges such as negotiating doors and crossing roads safely.
This stage of their training takes about six months and, if everything goes well, the dog is then ready to be matched with a partner who is blind.
Once matched, the dog/human team then train together for nearly a month under the watchful eye of the GDA trainers. This ensures that they work well together, fully understand each other, and are capable of dealing with all challenges that they encounter.
"Finally, one day, we received the phone call to tell us the welcome news that Gandalf had been matched with a gentlemen named Kevin, who is blind," said Nelson. "They were due to graduate shortly thereafter. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry first.
"Before the graduation ceremony itself, Greg and I had some private visiting time with Gandalf and Kevin," Nelson said. "When we met Kevin, it was very quickly apparent that he adored Gandalf. In return it was clear that Gandalf doted on Kevin. Kevin was proud of Gandalf's every accomplishment, many of which he listed for us. He also explained that Gandalf had demonstrated that he was the best behaved and most intelligent of all the dogs in their training class.
"Before meeting Kevin, I was aware that having a Guide Dog would make a significant difference to a blind person," she said. "As a Puppy Raiser it was one of the matters upon which I had often pondered while we were raising Gandalf. Until that moment, however, I had not fully grasped just how deeply and dramatically the impact of having a Guide Dog can alter someone's life. Frankly, this was something of a personal epiphany for me.
"I was fortunate enough to learn an extremely important lesson from Rosemary at Thunder Paws, her dog training school in Tehachapi. That lesson was that the process of training an animal should be FUN for both parties.
"During the time we had Gandalf, I realized that every person who interacted with him helped with his training. One extremely important aspect of a Guide Dog's life is to learn self-control or 'impulse control' as it is often termed. Guide Dogs must ignore distractions while they are working. Their human partner's life can depend upon this capability. All the puppies in training love people and, the same as other dogs, like to be petted, but they must not approach folks to be petted. It is essential for them to behave and keep calm around people. They must learn to wait patiently until their human partner allows someone to approach and pet them.
"The graduation ceremony brought home to me that raising a Guide Dog takes an enormous team; really a legion of people or perhaps, more accurately, a legion of angels. Some people donate money, and every penny of money donated counts: from a widow's mite of a dime to a bequest of a million dollars. People selflessly donate their time, energy and effort. Some folks had worked hard to raise money for GDA, some had volunteered their time to help the GDA staff with countless tasks, from the girl scouts very professionally presenting colors -- as indeed they do for every single GDA graduation ceremony -- to the folks that set out the refreshments offered following the ceremony.
"I sat in that audience looking at perhaps some 300 to 400 people. As I surveyed the scene from my front row seat alongside the other Puppy Raisers, I realized that every single person there had contributed to the success of all these amazing Guide Dogs. I now know that one of the best things about Gandalf graduating is that I can tell everyone an enormous, heartfelt 'thank you' for their part in helping him reach his full potential. All of these people meld together to form one giant team. Each member of that team can proudly take their share of the credit for achieving the wonderful success of these great dogs," Nelson said.
If you would like to learn more about Guide Dogs, you can check out the GDA website at guidedogsofamerica.org. I like watching the videos and one of my favorites is the Puppy Cam page.