Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., has been teaching students how to adapt to life with an animal at their side since World War II.
The training process lasts about a month, and recently, about half-dozen blind students were preparing for their second class. Some are here for the first time and have to learn everything from scratch, like how to put on that harness. The school serves about 300 people a year.
Training supervisor Adam Waskow helps them get started and shows one client — what students are called here — how to slip on the harness. The dogs and humans are just getting to know each other.
It's a pretty intimate relationship. They sleep in the same room in the dorm and spend most of each day working together on the streets of San Rafael.
This area was rural when Guide Dogs moved here after the World War II. Now it's part of the leafy suburbs that stretch north of San Francisco.
The trainees pile into a bus that takes them into downtown San Rafael, which offers a real urban environment in a small town setting. The school was founded to help returning vets deal with blindness, and it's still serving that role today.
Learning To Be Equal Partners
Mark Schrand of Mesa, Ariz., rides the bus with his new dog, Chester. Schrand lost his eyesight after his transportation unit was hit by an IED attack in Iraq.
Schrand says he had a long time to think about whether to get a guide dog. "It was something I really had to think about because I gradually started losing my vision," he says. Schrand had developed good skills with a cane before switching to a dog.
When they get downtown and hit the streets, the students work one on one with a trainer.
"Forward" Schrand tells Chester. It's a word Schrand will use often in the years they spend together. Schrand and Chester are equal partners, learning to communicate through a new language.
Nearby, another client tells a dog to cross the street. But the dog stops short because a car is coming.
Trainer Waskow explains this is an example of "intelligent disobedience." The dog disobeys a command because it senses danger.
"That, in essence, is difference between a guide dog and any other service dog. The guide dogs are actually making decisions based on safety and the greater good of the team," Waskow says.
This process is exhilarating for former cane users accustomed to walking by feel. "I don't think anyone really forgets their first walk with their first dog," says Natalie Martinello, 26. "Especially if you've never used a dog before, it's so fast. And so you kind of feel like you're running after them."
Martinello is learning to work with a yellow lab named Almanor, after Sherbet, her first animal, retired.
Learning to work with a dog is a big adjustment at any age. Many of the students here have developed blindness in middle age — through diabetes or macular degeneration. The switch is eased by all the help they get. Clients pay nothing for training or for the month spent living here.
But the client does owe something in return, says Guide Dogs Acting President Morgan Watkins. "These dogs are 100 percent dependent on us for their love and care and feeding. Your partnership, that camaraderie, that bond, has to be very strong," he says.
People who make the shift to a dog say that it frees up their senses. They can smell the coffee again, without the need to worry about basics, like crossing the street.