SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Every year about 1,500 guide dogs are trained to help the blind. It's an intricate process that establishes a deep bond between human and animal. NPR's Larry Abramson visited Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California and has this report.
LARRY ABRAMSON: On a quiet campus in the suburbs north of San Francisco, about half a dozen blind students are preparing for the second class in a month-long training process. Some are here for the first time and have to learn everything from scratch, like how to put on that harness.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cupcake, sit.
ADAM WASKOW: Yeah, now you could put your hand under her chin and just slide that right over. Yeah.
WOMAN: I'm new at this too, Cupcake.
ABRAMSON: Training supervisor Adam Waskow helps Cupcake's new owner get started. The dogs and humans are just getting to know each other. It's a pretty intimate relationship.
WASKOW: How was your first night with your new dogs?
WOMAN: Great. I got woke up to kisses.
WASKOW: You got woke up to kisses. That's a fringe benefit of a guide dog there.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
ABRAMSON: A bus takes the group into downtown San Rafael. Guide Dogs has been here since shortly after the school opened during the Second World War. It was founded to help returning vets deal with blindness and it's still serving that role today.
MARK SCHRAND: Yeah, I lost it over in Iraq.
ABRAMSON: Mark Schrand of Mesa, Arizona lost his sight to a roadside bomb while serving with a transportation unit in Iraq. Next to him is a yellow lab named Chester, the dog that will be his close companion for years to come.
SCHRAND: It was something I really had to think about 'cause I gradually started losing my vision.
ABRAMSON: That's a big responsibility to take on.
SCHRAND: Oh yeah, yeah.
ABRAMSON: Schrand and the others arrive at the center's downtown lounge, and then they hit the streets, working one on one, with trainers like Ben Cawley.
BEN CAWLEY: He may try to turn right, 'cause the bus's to the right, so he may anticipate that you want to go to the right. If he does that, just stop him.
ABRAMSON: Mark Schrand issues the forward command. Schrand and Chester are equal partners now, learning to communicate through a new language. As we trail behind, another client tells a dog to cross the street, but the dog stops short, because a car is coming. Trainer Adam Waskow explains this is an example of intelligent disobedience.
WASKOW: That in essence is the difference between a guide dog and any other service dog, is the guide dogs are actually making decisions based on safety and sort of the greater good of the team.
ABRAMSON: The process is amazing to watch, and it's apparently exhilarating, almost scary, for former cane users accustomed to walking by feel.
NATALIE MARTINELLO: I don't think anyone really forgets their first walk with their first dog.
ABRAMSON: Twenty-six-year-old Natalie Martinello is learning to work with a yellow lab named Almanor, after Sherbet, her first animal, retired.
MARTINELLO: It's really slow with a cane, and especially if you've never used a dog before, it's so fast. And so you kind of feel like you're running after them.
ABRAMSON: Learning to work with a dog is a big adjustment for anyone. Many of the students here have developed blindness in middle age, through diabetes or macular degeneration. The switch is eased by all the help they get - clients pay nothing for training, or for the month they spend at the school. Guide Dogs acting president Morgan Watkins says, the client does owe something in return.
MORGAN WATKINS: These dogs are 100 percent dependent on us for their love and care and feeding. Your partnership, that camaraderie, that bond has to be very strong.
ABRAMSON: Watkins says not everyone wants that much responsibility. I used to watch these dogs work when I went to high school in San Rafael, but I never really understood what exactly was going on. I know dogs are colorblind, but I assumed that somehow they used the traffic lights. But Adam Waskow says the lights don't play any role at all.
WASKOW: But what happens is the client is listening to the traffic flow, and through listening to the traffic flow they can tell when they think it's a green light. At that point, they ask the dog to cross the street. If it's not safe, the dog will refuse.
ABRAMSON: People who make the shift to a dog say it frees up their senses. They can smell the coffee again, without worrying about basics, like crossing the street. Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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