On a recent morning, Janice Walth took a brisk walk around her neighborhood in Lodi. It’s something that the world-class archer often does on days she’s not training.
As she approached the crosswalk, her dog Vargo stopped — not to sniff an interesting plant or the sidewalk, but to signal to his human that there was a road ahead.
That let Walth know that it was time to reach forward and feel for the button for the crosswalk.
Walth is visually impaired, and Vargo is her guide dog. She got him two years ago, and he’s the fourth dog she’s worked with from Guide Dogs for the Blind.
With Vargo in his harness by her side, Walth takes the bus, goes shopping, and handles other day-to-day errands.
“The dog gives me confidence, independence, companionship,” she said.
In a situation where she takes a wrong turn or feels nervous, Vargo provides support — and is trained to help her backtrack until she feels comfortable trying again.
“I can reach down and I’m not alone,” she said.
He’s also trained to guide her around obstacles and alert her when something like a corner or a road is ahead. Vargo helps ensure she’s walking in a straight line.
The guide dogs are also trained in “intelligent disobedience,” she said. If she begins to cross a road but a vehicle is coming, for example, Vargo can alert her and refuse to move forward.
A dog isn’t the only option for people with visual impairments, Walth said. Some prefer to use a mobility cane, and that can provide the same level of independence.
“I have more confidence using a dog,” she said.
Walth was paired with Vargo through Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit dog training school headquartered in San Rafael. The program — supported entirely through donations, with no government funding — provides dogs for free to clients, who are all legally blind.
Guide Dogs for the Blind doesn’t just touch the lives of its clients, however. The group is partially supported by a small army of volunteer puppy raisers, including an active team based in San Joaquin County.
Raising up guide dogs
Rachel Peters and her mom Kathy have been raising puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind since Rachel, now entering her junior year at Tokay High, was in the fifth grade.
Rachel has helped, but this year, she’s taken the lead in raising their new puppy, Newberry.
“I was still at Larsen (Elementary) with her first dog,” she said of her mom, a teacher at the local school.
The Peters family has raised one dog who went on to become a full-fledged guide dog, for a man in San Juan Capistrano, Kathy said. They got to meet him at the dog’s graduation, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since.
“It’s like having a new family member,” Kathy said.
Another dog, Fresno, came back to the Peters home. He was a “career change” dog. He didn’t meet the stringent requirements of the Guide Dogs for the Blind training program, and a second attempt at Dogs 4 Diabetics was a poor fit.
So Fresno came home, and Kathy got him certified as a therapy dog. Now, he works with students at Larson Elementary, providing support when they need it. Anyone can have their dog certified as a therapy dog as long as they meet certain requirements, Kathy said. Animal Friends Connection in Lodi offers a program.
Lori Bryan, who leads the puppy raising club in San Joaquin County, has been raising guide dog puppies since 1968.
“I was already in 4-H, and at that time, raising guide dog puppies was only a 4-H project,” she said.
She first became interested in raising a puppy after she saw a Disney special about training guide dogs.
Soon, Bryan was hooked. She’s continued to raise puppies ever since, and encouraged her children to follow in her footsteps.
“It was a marvelous thing for a young person to do and be involved in,” she said.
Puppy raisers do more than just provide a home for puppies until they’re old enough to enter training. They also teach them some valuable skills, such as sitting quietly and not becoming excited and rambunctious when meeting new people.
“All the puppies go through a phase where they’re too excited to see people,” Bryan said.
The puppy raisers meet every other week. New members and anyone interested in raising a puppy can come to the meetings to get an overview. After three meetings, they can apply; if their application looks good, they’ll be interviewed at home, then do some “puppy sitting” to see if they’re still a good fit.
“They really are informed about what they’re going to be doing and what’s involved in having a puppy,” Bryan said.
From the time puppies are eight weeks old until they’re four months old, they work with folks from Guide Dogs for the Blind every week, to see how things are going and find out which new skills they should be working on. That can include everything from crate training and sitting quietly next to their handler to going to the bathroom on command.
“We house-break them. They aren’t house-broken when we get them,” Bryan said.
They get evaluated every few months by a Guide Dogs for the Blind employee to see how their training is progressing and offer advice to raisers.
Once they’ve received all their vaccines, the puppies are outfitted with green vests reading “Guide Dog Puppy in Training” and they join their puppy raiser out in the world. They go to as many different places as possible — restaurants, stores, sporting events.
“They go where we go,” Bryan said.
Building the program
Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1942. The school for training dogs was founded by Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson.
Merrihew had a dream of training guide dogs and opening a training school on the West Coast. But when she traveled to the East Coast to learn the skills she needed, she was told women weren’t physically or emotionally equipped to train guide dogs.
Undeterred, she joined forces with Donaldson, a former trainer with New Jersey-based school the Seeing Eye, who shared her goal of starting a West Coast organization. As America entered World War II, they found another shared goal: they wanted to ensure that veterans who lost their vision in combat would have dogs to guide them when they returned home.
Merrihew and Donaldson went to San Francisco with Blondie, a dog saved from the pound, to offer lectures and demonstrate the kinds of skills guide dogs learn. They soon caught the attention of the American Women’s Voluntary Services, and with the help of that group and the Hurst Foundation, soon Guide Dogs for the Blind was born.
The first veteran to graduate from the school was Sgt. Leonard Foulk, who was blinded when his binoculars were hit by sniper fire in the Battle of Attu Island in the Pacific. He was paired with Blondie.
The school moved from Los Gatos to San Rafael in 1947. Merrihew also helped to pass a Senate bill in 1947 that set standards and licensing for guide dog trainers and schools.
“Before then, anyone could ‘train’ and sell dogs to blind persons, without any guarantee of proper training,” she is quoted as saying on Guide Dogs for the Blind’s website.
The training school provides all of its dogs — as well as after-graduation veterinary care and additional services — free to those with visual impairments.
In 1995, Guide Dogs for the Blind opened a campus in Boring, Oregon, just 25 miles east of Portland.
There’s a difference between a guide dog or another service animal, like the dogs trained to support people with diabetes or epilepsy, and therapy dogs, Kathy Peters said.
Service dogs (and occasionally miniature horses) are trained to provide a specific and vital service. Guide dogs help people with visual impairments navigate unfamiliar places. Other service dogs can smell changes in blood sugar or recognize the warning signs of a seizure and alert their humans. Some are hearing ear dogs, alerting their handlers to things like fire alarms or honking car horns.
“Guide dogs, they’re amazing,” Walth said. “What they do — how they know what do to.”
Therapy dogs provide comfort — an important task, but not one covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They don’t often undergo the kind of training that guide dogs do.
For business owners or members of the public who don’t know the difference, badly behaved therapy dogs (or dogs wearing vests purchased off the internet with no certification whatsoever) can damage the reputation of guide dogs, to the detriment of the people who need them.
Business owners who are uncertain can ask what service a dog is trained to perform, Walth said.
Legitimate guide dogs are protected by the ADA, and are legally allowed to be anywhere their human is allowed.
For example, Walth once visited a convenience store with her guide dog, and the cashier told her she was not allowed because the store sold food. She didn’t know what to do then, and left.
When it happened again at another store, she reported the ADA violation. The store owners agreed to go through a private arbitration process, where they learned all about the guide dog program.
These days, Walth said, it’s very rare for business owners to stop her from entering a business with her dog.
The puppy raisers take pride in the important service they provide as volunteers — not just raising the puppies, but also serving as ambassadors for the Guide Dogs for the Blind program.
“I love teaching the dogs all the things they need to do,” Kathy Peters said.
She’s turned raising her puppies into something of a community project. Her sixth-grade students form a “Puppy Patrol,” helping socialize the dogs.
“There’s probably 90 to 100 Lodi kids who have been part of the Puppy Patrol,” she said.
Bryan and her children have given presentations to schools and clubs all over Lodi, teaching about the program and what is expected of the dogs.
They also teach one important lesson: If a dog is working, please don’t pet her. That could distract her from the important job she’s doing.
The bittersweet side of being a puppy raiser? Sending the pup back to Guide Dogs for the Blind for their training.
“It’s very, very hard,” Peters said. “But that’s why you do it.”
It can be sad, but it’s also rewarding, Bryan said.
“When you go into puppy raising as a raiser, your mind-set is ‘I’m training this dog to be a service dog,’” she said.
The raisers are invited to see “their” dogs graduate the program and be presented to their new handlers, she said. The ceremony gives everyone involved in raising the dog a chance to speak.
“The ultimate best thing is when you see the puppy you raised with a harness on, guiding a blind or visually impaired person,” Bryan said.
Puppy raisers can also be certain that the pups are going on to a great life. The guide dog program provides veterinary care, boarding and other services to their clients, ensuring the dogs have healthy, happy lives.
Guide Dogs for the Blind retains ownership of the dogs, and if they find out about any neglect or mistreatment, they take them back, Bryan said.
“Guide Dogs for the Blind is very protective of their dogs,” she said.
Most of the dogs are valued members of the family, like Vargo, who has a collection of toys, a comfy bed and lots of attention from Walth and her husband. When his vest is off, he’s like any other dog, thumping his tail happily on the ground while he gets pets.
When the vest and harness go on, he’s all business.
“He really likes to work and he likes to go out,” Walth said.
When she goes overseas to compete in archery tournaments, he often stays at the boarding center at Guide Dogs for the Blind. There is a lot of planning and paperwork involved in bringing a dog overseas, and when she competes, he mainly watches her from a chaise lounge anyway. She has a number of tools for targeting, and he doesn’t have anything to do, she said.
Vargo does travel with her everywhere in the United States. He’ll be with Walth when she competes this summer in Sacramento to raise funds for her world competition travel. She’ll be heading to Andorra, a small European nation, to compete in September.
And Vargo is an excellent companion when Walth and her husband tackle field archery.
“He does really well guiding along the trails,” she said.
It’s not something he’s been trained to do. Guide dogs are trained for urban landscapes, not hiking trails. But the two of them have been together long enough that he’s picked it up, Walth said.
“The longer you work together, the more you become a team,” she said.