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International Guide Dog Day

April 24, 2019

by USICD Program Manager, Vivian Fridas

Vivian Fridas with her guide dog Ditto.

Vivian Fridas with her guide dog Ditto.

Every year on the last Wednesday of April we celebrate International Guide Dog Day. This day honors the importance a guide dog has in the life of a person who is blind or visually impaired.

Historically, there are countless references depicting the relationship between dogs and the blind. The earliest recorded example can be seen in a first-century mural in the buried ruins of Roman Herculaneum. Similarly, there are other examples from Asia and Europe up until the middle ages of dogs leading the blind depicted in various forms of art work. The modern story of guide dogs, however, can be traced back to World War I with many soldiers returning from the war blinded from poisonous gas. Many observed that dogs were useful in aiding former soldiers in traveling independently. There were efforts to train dogs to be used as guides in Europe as early as 1916. The first guide dog school in the United States was established in 1929, the Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey. Today, the International Guide Dog Federation has been established and has 92 member organizations across 30 different countries.

Years ago, I made the decision to apply to receive a guide dog. I felt that traveling with a cane did not provide as much independence and mobility as I wanted. After researching guide dogs and various schools, I applied for a class date with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. In May 2011, I was matched with my first guide dog, Ditto, a black male lab. After almost four weeks of residing on the school’s grounds and training with Ditto, I went home excited to take on the world with my new guide dog. I can still remember what it felt like the first time I picked up Ditto’s harness for a practice route. The feeling of complete freedom washed over me. It was the first time I truly felt like I was an independent and mobile traveler. I will now continue to use guide dogs for the foreseeable future.

Not only do I feel that traveling with a guide dog is safer, but I gained a new confidence that I did not have when using the cane. This is not to put down those who still make use of the cane. I say that it is a personal choice whether you use a guide dog or use a cane. Whatever you feel most comfortable using and as long as you get from point A to point B safely, I don’t think it matters if you are a cane user, guide dog user, or sighted guide user.

Now with our eight-year anniversary of working together approaching, I look back on all Ditto and I have accomplished together. He was by my side when I started and completed my master’s degree, all the while sleeping through all the long seminars and lectures, with occasional loud moans and groans to make his presence known and acknowledged. Every time I was sick or had to visit the doctor or hospital, Ditto would make sure to be a protective and comforting companion never leaving my side. Ditto was with me through all my internships and first employment position making sure we made it to the office safely.

Ditto and I have traveled all over the world many times from Germany to Greece to Lebanon and more. He never left my side or got annoyed even when I would get us lost and always the cool and calm presence by my side giving me courage to brave the world even when I am unsure of my surroundings. I know that I can pick up his harness, give him a command, and find our destination through our team effort.

I think it is important to acknowledge all the hard work that goes into training a guide dog. It all starts with puppy raisers who take the dog to live with them for the first year-and-a-half of their lives. During this time, they are socialized and get some basic training. Once the dog is old enough, they return to the school for testing to see if they have what it takes to continue on the road to becoming a guide dog. If the dog passes, then comes approximately six months of training.  Finally, instructors will determine which dog will get matched to the handler based on a whole range of variables. Once dog and person are matched, the team completes a few weeks of training together to become a successful and safe team. All of this is done at no cost to those who apply to receive a guide dog.

For me, I cannot thank the instructors, volunteers, puppy raisers and countless other staff members at Guiding Eyes for the Blind for all the work they put in to providing me with my first guide dog. Today is a celebration of our guides as well as the schools they came from. The dedication to providing quality guide dogs in order for the blind and visually impaired to live a life of dignity and independence is limitless. With Ditto approaching his tenth birthday in just a few short weeks, I am beginning to think of his retirement. I know that once that day comes, though it will be difficult, I know I can count on Guiding Eyes to help me transition to a new guide dog with excellent training.

I hope that all of you take a moment to celebrate the guide dogs in your life and give our pals an extra treat today for the hard work they put in every day.

 

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