By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–
If you are out and about in town and see a puppy in a green vest, you can pet it; but please ask permission first. These puppies and their volunteer handlers are in training to become working dogs. Guide Dogs for the Blind Ridgecrest Puppy Club is part of a national network that is making a big difference in many lives throughout the United States and Canada. It is amazing to learn of the generosity of this national organization.
There has been guide dog training in Ridgecrest since the 1950’s, originally through the 4-H Club. Co-Leader of the Ridgecrest club, Kay Blachly, tells us, “ I started because my children were in 4-H in Lake County and wanted to raise guide dog puppies. When I moved here in 1993 the leader, Robert Fowler, was ready to give it up. So I assumed the responsibility for the 4-H Guide Dog Project which used puppies provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind.” (GDB) Around 1999 the local project became independent from 4-H.
Lisa Balk, also a Co-Leader, says, “I have always been fascinated with working dogs; I used to work for a veterinarian. These dogs are just the best and the people are amazing, too. I moved to Ridgecrest six years ago. The second week I was here I met the Guide Dog Club and they’d been like a family to me.”
In addition to Blachly and Balk, Columbia Nelson, is also a Co-Leader. They are always seeking volunteers who can be raisers, puppy sitters, or those who just love animals and can help during their training sessions by assisting in creating scenarios for the puppies to encounter.
The puppy club is a well-organized and thorough program. To become a raiser one attends three meetings to become familiar with the scope of the program. These meetings are support groups and educational. The next step is an application process which goes through Guide Dogs for the Blind, then an interview with two co-leaders, then puppy sitting opportunities as you continue attending the meetings. There is another application process before you are given a puppy to raise. “You have to be willing to have a dog with you 24/7 like a child,” says Blachly.
The puppies are bred specifically to become guide dogs at a puppy center at GDB headquarters in San Rafael, California. “The moms were raised as guide dog puppies, but were selected out to be breeders and the father is the same. When it’s time to deliver, she goes into the puppy center. When they’re weaned she goes back home with her family,” says Blachly.
At eight to ten weeks the puppies are given to raisers with initial supplies needed to give the puppy a healthy start. The puppy raisers “do pay for food and extra toys and transportation, so that is tax deductible as a donation because it’s a nonprofit group, and we are volunteers,” says Balk. Veterinary care is entirely paid for by GDB for puppy raisers. “When the dog is 16 to 21 months old, it will go back to headquarters,” says Blachly. “All harness work is done there with licensed trainers.”
Once the dog is ready, “Blind clients can come from anywhere in the United States or Canada; they will come and stay there two weeks. Everything for them other than the expense of getting themselves to an airport is free,” says Blachly. Training, meals, lodging, and the dog are all free.
“The goal is to not know there’s a dog around,” says Balk. “Our puppies are supposed to be very quiet and not seeking attention. A lot of times when we go to a restaurant people have no idea there’s a dog there. One time we had a big meeting at the Maturango Museum with other clubs; there were about 30 dogs and there was not a sound from a dog.”
“Our our primary job is to raise a puppy that a blind person can live with in their home and take out everywhere because that dog is going to be their eyes,” says Blachly. “They need a dog that will behave in all kinds of situation in all kinds of places.”
Which is why you are likely to encounter a puppy in training around town. They need to learn to go up stairs, ride a bus, ride an elevator. To that end the trainers are active in creating opportunities for encounters. That is where volunteers can join in the fun. Blachly gives examples, “We have people who just love the dogs and want to help us so I plant them around.” For bus riding, “Maybe they get on someplace else with a bunch of shopping bags filled with stuff that makes noise and when they get in and they’re walking the aisle their bags are fluffing and hitting dogs.
“We might roll a ball down the middle of the bus. They are not supposed to try to go for the ball. A young puppy is probably going to go for the ball because they are a young puppy. But by that time that dog is 16 or 18 months old it should say, ‘There goes a ball.’ Now things are opening back up after COVID we can take a big Metrolink trip. We go to Lancaster and ride the Metrolink to Union Station.”
Trainers also take their dogs on trips and stay in hotels or take them to the airport so they can experience the terminal. And if it isn’t feasible for whatever reason to take the puppy, the Puppy Sitters can take care of it during your absence.
So many situations that sighted people take for granted require guide dog training. “We work on nice greetings at home. We work on meetings where we ring doorbells. You take your dog outside, ring the doorbell and all these dogs are inside hearing the doorbell but then someone opens it and you come in. We work on greetings. We train them not to bark at the doorbell,” explains Blachly.
Their bi-monthly meetings can reinforce and enhance the knowledge of the trainers. “We do teach commands. We work on restaurant manners. If someone’s dog is having trouble settling in a restaurant, our next meeting is going to be at a restaurant and we’re going to work together on a restaurant manners. Someone may tell me, ‘My dog doesn’t want to get in a truck.’ Well, then I’m going to line up everybody who has a truck and I’m going to make all the puppies get in and out.”
Right now there are four puppies in training in Ridgecrest. If you’d like to meet them, they will be at the Ridgecrest Cinema’s Farmer’s Market on October 1. While there you can get more information on how to become part of a network of volunteers dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people who are blind. Donations are always welcome. For more information call Kay Blachly at 760-793-2840.