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Floresville woman trains dogs to ‘see’ for people in need
WCN CorrespondentDecember 26, 2013 2,518 views 1 comment
Meet Essie, a 7-1/2-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, currently in training with Wendy Riggs of Floresville, a volunteer for Guide Dogs of Texas; the organization trains service dogs for the blind.
Training can take up to a year. In that time, Wendy accomplishes potty- and house-training, along with crate training. She also teaches the dogs to obey commands and get used to working in the public, using socialization exercises.
Essie goes everywhere Wendy goes -- to the San Antonio River Walk, PetSmart, North Star Mall, H-E-B, a San Antonio Missions baseball game, a Silver Stars game at the AT&T Center, the San Antonio Rodeo, and other social outings. She becomes accustomed to being around people, yet not interacting with anyone but her handler.
It’s a normal temptation for people to want to pet a service dog, yet it is very important that they do not approach or try to pet or talk to these animals in a high squeaky voice; this is very distracting to the dog and might keep it from “doing its job.”
The safety of the blind or visually impaired person depends on the guide dog not being distracted.
“When we are out and about, we meet many people and some do know that there are right ways to react around a service dog,” Wendy explained. “We would like to inform the public. As hard as it is to do, the key is just to ignore the dog as if it were not there.”
If they get distracted, Wendy said, “they lose their focus and don’t perform their duties, which ultimately could place the blind person in danger.”
“It’s tough. But you know that it’s not your puppy. You think about how this dog will benefit someone. You think about the greater purpose.”
Essie, who was 8 weeks old when Wendy got her, is the third dog she has trained. She thought she wouldn’t get as attached as she did to the first one, or the second one, but Essie is Wendy’s third trainee and she is just as attached as she was to the previous two dogs.
To become a trainer, Wendy applied and then underwent a background check; it helps to have a fenced-in back yard. The Guide Dogs of Texas organization performed a home visit to assess the safety, environment, and other pets in the home. Wendy then walked with another dog in training to see how she reacted to the dog.
Guide dogs have to learn to walk in straight lines so they don’t trip their handlers. They learn to stop at the first step before going up a flight of stairs, so their handler knows that they are going up; when they are coming down a flight of stairs, they stop on the top step to alert the handler that they approaching down stairs.
Potty training for guide dogs is a bit different than for family pets. Wendy said the dogs are trained to do their “bathroom” functions on command. When trainers take a dog somewhere, they don’t put their vest or jacket on until the animals relieve themselves in a designated area. When they complete their necessary stop, they get lots of praise and a reward. Then their jacket goes back on and they are ready for duty. After a few times of going “on command,” they know when it is acceptable to relieve themselves.
Once the jacket goes on, most dogs will recognize that a certain behavior is expected of them and their demeanor will reflect that understanding,” Wendy said.
The vest or jacket also serves as a visible reminder to people that the dog is working.
Guide Dogs of Texas primarily works with Labradors, as they have great temperaments and are good working dogs.
The organization can provide a service dog for the blind for $1. To qualify, the applicant must be at least 17 years old and a resident of Texas, have white cane training, and go through one month of training with the dog. Guide dogs come with a lifetime of after-care. The agency follows up every year.
“We offer freedom, mobility, and independence.” Wendy said. “It’s amazing to see how a dog can change a life.”
She has heard of people who were shut-ins and almost hermits and did not go anywhere.
“Now, with a service dog, those people have jobs and socials interactions and a life,” she said.
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