Graduation Day

GDB OregonThe Visitors Center @2010 lindabenson.blogspot.com 

Our second guide dog puppy, Spice, was the first one to complete her work to become fully certified.  Guide Dogs for the Blind operates two campuses on the West coast, one in Oregon where we were going, and one in California.  Mary and I (the puppy raisers) and the Brodys (former playmates) drove down the night before.  We had the same kind of joy and anticipation parents get when their children graduate from college, ready to enter the working world.  Four months ago the yellow Lab we had socialized and practiced basic commands with for a year went off to school for the final stage of intensive training.  All we’ve received since were reports indicating which of the ten last phases she had completed.

Ruffwear Product Shoot SS11 - August 2010 The final 4-6 months of training involve levels of risk and independent judgment the dogs aren’t ready to master before 13-15 months of age.  It’s necessary to wait until they have reached their mature size before attempting some of the tasks, like walking on escalators.  Dogs have nails that could get caught, so they must wear booties for safety.  Even though they’ve never worn anything like that before, these dogs have learned to accept and trust any kind of handling, and whatever equipment their human attaches.

StairguideThe dogs are taught to perceive themselves as wider and taller when in harness, the combined size of their body plus the body of the handler.  If the dog-human unit approaches a passage too low or narrow for the human to clear, the dog will stop so the handler can assess the situation.  At any change in elevation like stairs or a curb, the dog will pause for permission to continue.  Assistance in navigating public transportation is a key part of their job.  As puppies, they all practiced finding empty seats on buses, getting into cars and going on boats.  During the last training phases, the school has a simulator section of airplane seats.  The dogs are taken out in groups to experience the most demanding environments.  In this case, they travel to Portland, ride the light rail system and navigate through busy downtown traffic.

In the final two weeks of training the dogs are matched with a blind partner.  There are different varieties of sight impairment.  Many sight-impaired people can still see some differences in light or a limited amount of color.  Some are formerly sighted individuals, which presents another set of challenges.  It can be harder for a person who used to see to learn to trust the dog to make the right decisions.  Younger and larger humans need to be matched with stronger, more energetic dogs.  Spice is an unusual individual.  She’s confident and strong, but responds best to a more subtle style of handling than the typical dog.  That was taken into account when the school chose her partner.

JeremyMajanayeJeremy and his wife Majanaye, who urged him to get a dog.

Spice’s new owner is Jeremy Jeffers.  He’s a 27 year-old, married man who lives and works in the Los Angeles metro area.  He has had sight problems all his life, but only became blind at age 21.  Jeremy is somewhat shy, and he comes across as a sensitive, genuinely humble person.  He’s an extraordinarily gifted musician, a multi-instrumentalist.  Major keyboard chops.  It might embarrass him if I went too deeply into his professional resume, so let’s just say he has worked as a keyboard tester for Stevie Wonder, and has participated in projects for Quincy Jones.  He’s a devout Christian, and he performs at church.  Wasn’t it fortunate that we played instruments at home, and took Spice to churches and rehearsals each week?

After several years playing with groups and on recording projects, Jeremy has decided to train for a career as a music teacher.  The Los Angeles music community is vast and complex.  He has a lot of different places he needs to get to.  Spice loves live music, and church, and will help him navigate to wherever he wants to go independently.  What an exciting challenge!

JeremyMaryBack at school, Spice was enthusiastic and happy to see us, but I can tell she’s grown up a lot.  She knows she’s going home with Jeremy.  Even while greeting and getting petted, she would look over to check on him.  That’s exactly as it should be.  It’s rewarding for me to understand how perfect and appropriate these two are for each other.  Spice responds to a subtle command and a gentle voice best.  That’s Jeremy all over.  She’s his first guide dog, and I’ve not seen any dog in training that is more gratified by completing the tasks properly.  She will work her heart out for him, and they will share the joy of going everywhere.  I believe Spice knows she and Jeremy belong together.JeremySpiceThere is no obligation for owners of a guide dog to keep in touch with puppy raisers.  We haven’t heard a word from the family that adopted our first dog, the one who decided she didn’t want to be a guide very early in the process.  But Jeremy told us that “we’re family now”, a generous declaration that touched me deeply.  I think it’s likely you will be able to read about their future adventures in this space.

CloseFace My regular readers understand that I’m kind of a Luddite about social media, but Jeremy’s a typical person under 30 – iPhone on the hip, Twitter and Facebook.  If you do those sorts of things too and want to send him messages of encouragement, he can be found here:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/professerkeys

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jeremy.jeffers2

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16 Comments

Filed under animal communication, photos, Self-Esteem

16 responses to “Graduation Day

  1. Oh, Michael, I cried as I read this. So happy for Spice and for Jeremy and for you two.

  2. I’m taking a break from blogging, as my last post explained, but on a whim I stopped by to see what you are up to. I’m so glad I did! Having followed Spice’s progress all this time I would hate to miss out on this update. Like Susan, i teared up as I read it. How wonderful for Spice and Jeremy. I’m so happy for everyone!! Congratulations to all.

    • Like most graduations, weddings etc. the day didn’t go totally without a hitch. Spice had a tummy bug that was going around school, and didn’t fly home directly with Jeremy. They will be reunited soon however. I didn’t think it worth changing the ending over. Thanks, Galen.

  3. What a wonderful story. Last weekend there was a news story about dogs for vets with ptsd. I thought it would be wonderful to do that. I don’t want to commit to owning a dog right now, but would love to participate in something like this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for reading, and for your kind words. You can help at any level you wish, Cathy. For example, if you don’t have a year to raise a puppy, you can sign up as a “puppy sitter” for the trainee dogs. It gives the raisers a day or two off when they need one. Or you can co-raise a puppy with another person. My wife wanted to join this program because she wasn’t sure she had the physical endurance to make a multi-year committment to a pet. Raising the puppy was part of her physical therapy.

      There are different organizations to cover all states. For the West coast, it’s Guide Dogs for the Blind: http://www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer

  4. What an amazing, touching and beautiful story and what a fantastic partnership they will build together.
    It’s totally clear the Spice understands that Jeremy is the person she has been doing all this learning for so the bond is being established right from the very first.

    I hope that you and Mary don’t have too many painful “empty nest” moments before the next puppy arrives and I’m heartened to read that Jeremy wants to keep you informed about how Spice is doing in the future.

    Spice will always remember you and there will be a special place in her heart for you both, that will never go away: that space just gets bigger to allow for Jeremy and his wife to join you there.

    • We haven’t been short of the company of other dogs. There just aren’t any sleeping here. Mary volunteers at the humane shelter, walking and playing with several most days, and our club has seven dogs at the moment. My older cat is also in decline, and she prefers the calm. Outdoors, we are focusing on the birds.

      The satisfying conclusion to the Spice Project gave us the satisfaction of knowing we were doing it for all the right reasons. I’m happy to have been able to share it with you! Thanks for keeping in touch, Kiwi.

  5. SO HAPPY to hear she graduated, and with such a lovely person. I will keep my eyes peeled for Jeremy and Spice here in LA. – Mandy and “Niecy” in formal training in San Rafael

  6. Ok. My make-up is all smudged. Thanks for sharing Spice’s heartwarming journey with us. Thank you for just being YOU – so special!

    • You know, even the first dog’s tale ended well. Lilah, who “washed out” of the guide program at 19 weeks of age (too excitable, rapid, fiercely independent) spent several months at the Boring Campus getting obedience training to become a good family pet. The trainers nicknamed her “Firecracker”. We saw a picture of her on the bulletin board, sent from her new family in Portland. We can all get to a happy ending, with the right support system.

      Sorry about the make up, heh heh. Love you.

  7. This is so beautiful, it must be such a lovely feeling to know that you’ve done such a great job with the dogs for them to have a huge impact on someone’s life. As always I’m so pleased you share these stories with us :)

    • I remember when I was young how deeply I yearned to “change the world”. My understanding of how to accomplish that has matured. This is how you change the world. Do something to change one other person’s world. Work on one problem, or for one person at a time. If I had raised any children, or been a school teacher, I might have come to understand it sooner. Better late than never! Thanks, for reading, m’dear.

  8. Hi Mikey,
    I read part of this post a long while ago but I wept. I got all caught up in the emotions of training a dog and giving it up. You see I have trained both dogs and horses who I thought went to good homes only to find out differently later on. One of these memories was at the top of my mind when I read the first part of this post and I couldn’t seem to get past it so I clicked out without reading it all.

    Today I came came back and after I read your most recent post I read this post all the way to the end. I am weeping with joy for Jeremy and Spice. I’m not sure what shifted but I am sure that you and Mary are making difference in other people’s lives and for that I salute you. It will be wonderful to read updates.

    • There was probably a difference in the amount of systemic support available for your efforts. I once volunteered at a Crisis Center that was small and independent, with little community support. They had all the best intentions, but cases kept cropping up that went weird and were hard to resolve. There were too many preventable suicides.

      By contrast, this dog provider checks out the residences and family situations of trainers, sitters and the visually impaired people who own and use the dogs. The organization will keep up regular visits with Jeremy and Spice to ensure they both have the best relationship possible, and that both can work to their full potential. After their term of service, the dogs get to retire with a health care plan, free vet care for life.

      I’m glad you got through to the rest of the story. I couldn’t have made up a better ending.

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