Blind World Magazine

Canine eyes get a leg up.

January 16, 2006.
Davis Enterprise - Davis,CA,USA.

On Christmas Day, Julianne Phillips received a present she will have to return. It was a cuddly puppy named Randolph.

Not just any puppy, the 9-week-old German shepherd is in training to be the eyes for someone who is blind.

Phillips picked up Randolph at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael on Dec. 25. He will live with her family for just over a year and is the sole responsibility of 17-year-old Phillips.

He will accompany her to school, to the grocery store, on outings, everywhere she goes. He will be her constant companion until he is trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind, with the ultimate goal of working with a blind or sight-impaired person.

For the next 15 months, The Enterprise will follow Phillips and Randolph on their journey, sharing their story with readers.

It started with Winola

For the Davis High School senior, raising a guide dog puppy is nothing new — Phillips began raising guide dogs at the age of 14.

Inspired by the guide dog that accompanied a blind family friend to dinner one night, Phillips decided she wanted to raise guide dog puppies.

She began at 12 as a puppy-sitter, giving local guide dog raisers an occasional respite from their responsibilities.

Two years later she received her own guide dog puppy when a little yellow Labrador retriever named Winola came home to live with her.

“The first dog you raise is always a Labrador because they’re easier,” Phillips explained.

In August of 2003, Winola graduated from the Guide Dogs for the Blind program, making her home with a blind reverend in Illinois.

“It was heartbreaking,” Phillips recalled of the day she parted with Winola.

It was a tearful goodbye, but one Phillips said she can do again.

“It was the most rewarding experience because you realize you’ve just given eyes to someone,” she said.

After Winola came Danny, a black Labrador retriever. And after Danny came Corby, a German shepherd. Now it’s Randolph’s turn.

With Randolph’s departure more than a year away, Phillips will focus on the task at hand — socialization. It will be her main responsibility, getting Randolph accustomed to the sights and sounds of daily life.

“They go everywhere so they can become fearless,” she said, “so they can conquer all and not be phased by it.”

The socialization process begins slowly. On Randolph’s first visit to the grocery store, Phillips didn’t shop. Instead, she sat at a table inside Nugget Market. Randolph sat quietly, watching the people wheel carts in and out of the store, until he feel asleep at her feet.

“We start them off really slow so they see shopping carts and people, but they’re not overwhelmed,” Phillips said.

The next trip, Phillips explained, he will go down the aisles.

When he is about 5 or 6 months old, Randolph will be ready to attend Davis High School. For now, he is accompanying Phillips’ mother to work.

Over the past few years, guide dog puppies have been a regular sight at Davis High, going from class to class with their teen raisers. During class time, a puppy sleeps under the raiser’s desk.

The challenge is getting to the next class, when hundreds of students are calling the dog and asking questions of Phillips.

While she is pressed for time, Phillips says she also realizes that educating people about guide dogs is part of her job.

When people stop her on the street — which is just about every day — she answers questions and shares information. Some, she says, think it’s cruel to make a dog be a guide dog.

Putting her heart and soul into the job, in the beginning she was hurt by the comments from strangers.

“A lot of people on the street think we’re abusing dogs,” she said. “But really, the dogs are probably happier going everywhere with us than your dog is sitting at home.”

While most Davis restaurants welcome guide dog puppies, a few are reluctant to allow dogs inside their eateries. Phillips says that while the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that guide dogs be allowed everywhere, guide dog puppies in training don’t have the same rights.

Currently there are nine puppy raisers in Yolo County, three of them youth raisers like Phillips. The raisers meet twice a month, for an informational meeting and for a field trip. The outings are designed to introduce the dogs to a variety of experiences, including trips to the mall, a day in the snow or a ride on a San Francisco ferry, to name a few.

A Lake Tahoe excursion was a particular favorite for Phillips. Another memorable outing was a trip to the Woodland corn maze.

Feeling confident they were exploring a maze with guide dogs, the team set out on their adventure, sure that they would be out in record time.

“We got lost. We had to get help out of there,” Phillips remembers, laughing.

From puppy to guide dog

The road from puppy to guide dog begins at 8 weeks of age, when a puppy goes home with a raiser and the socialization process begins. At anywhere from 13 to 18 months old, the puppy returns to Guide Dogs for the Blind for five to six months of intensive training. Puppies undergo a 10-phase process, with each phase requiring completion before the dog can graduate.

Working with professional trainers at the Guide Dogs facility in San Rafael, the dogs learn dozens of skills, including guidework-specific commands like “forward” and “hop up”; crossing busy intersections; boarding escalators; entering and exiting public transportation; and finally a blindfold test where the instructor is blindfolded and taken on a 40- to 50-minute route in downtown San Rafael that covers every aspect of guidework.

At any time in the 10-step process, the dog can be “career changed.” Only 50 percent of the dogs graduate from the program. The remaining dogs are given new careers, like rescue dogs, drug sniffers or family pets.

Living at home with Phillips and Randolph is Danny, a guide dog puppy who didn’t graduate. Danny is a cherished member of the family and a best friend to Randolph.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to see the dog graduate. At the annual spring graduation at Guide Dogs for the Blind, puppy raisers are united with the puppies that have been working at the facility for almost half a year.

Puppy raisers share stories about their dogs and present them to their new blind or sight-impaired owner at an emotional farewell ceremony. It’s a final goodbye for the puppy raiser and a new beginning for the dog.

“It’s the most rewarding experience ever,” Phillips said.

— Reach Julie Rooney at or 747-8051.

End of article.

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