Most people recognize a guide dog when they see one. A dog, most often a Labrador, Golden Retriever, or German Shepherd, but occasionally a different breed, wearing a leather harness with a rigid handle, leading a visually-impaired person down the sidewalk or through a building. They avoid obstacles, watch for cars and are the eyes of the person on the other end of that handle. Or, you may even see them while they’re growing up, small puppies, wearing a colored vest or cape that proudly states “Guide Dog Puppy in Training.” Most people stop to comment on the cute puppy, some are even allowed to pet (if they’re lucky!) but the general consensus from the public is that “I could never give it up.” Puppy raisers generally just smile and nod. They know they’re not really giving that puppy up- they’re sending it on. Much like a parent raises a child to grow up, go to college, leave the house, and live their own life, so puppy raisers do the same for the puppies in their care.
This is the story of Hawkins, one most exceptional guide dog, if I do say so myself. Hawkins was born in the breeding/whelping kennels of Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. on their sprawling California campus, located in San Rafael, California. The only male in a litter of 7 yellow lab puppies, born to carefully selected and bred parents, dogs from the private breeding colony kept by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Generations of careful, selective breeding have produced dogs with exceptional traits that are highly valued in guide dogs.
At Guide Dogs for the Blind, no two active dogs within the breeding, guide dog or puppy raising programs, have the same name. Their names are unique to set them apart from the other thousands of active dogs in Guide Dog’s programs. If a dog retires or is dropped from the program (‘career changed’ as we call it when they fail guide dog training), the names are recycled for use. Every litter born to Guide Dogs is given a letter, and every puppy in that litter will have a name that starts with that letter. So Hawkins’ litter consisted of Hawkins himself, and his sisters, Harriet, Hashana, Hatari, Hibiscus, Hickory, and Hula. Their early puppy days consisted of eating, playing with soft puppy toys, hearing gentle music within the kennel, and being carefully handled by a dedicated kennel staff. As they grew, they were weaned and moved to the puppy kennel, where they got daily romps in the toy-filled puppy play yard, an area with grass, concrete and rubber flooring (to expose the puppies early to different types of floors), plastic toddler jungle gym equipment to encourage curiosity and exposure to strange looking objects, small flags that flap in the wind, whirligigs, colorful mobiles above their heads (to encourage the future guides to look up!) and even their very own cat. Volunteers wait months for the opportunity to come play with the puppies inside the yard, giving valued interaction and play time to growing puppy minds.
At roughly 8 weeks old the puppies are placed throughout the western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and in the Dallas or Austin areas of Texas. Some puppy raisers have raised dogs for decades and some, like me at the time, are first time raisers. To be able to raise a puppy, I first had to attend several puppy raiser meetings. For my puppy club, the Alameda County Puppy Raisers in Alameda County, California, our meetings were weekly on Tuesday nights. I attended several of these meetings, handling other people’s puppies, learning how to handle a dog, how guide dogs expects their puppies to be raised and trained, learning the commands Guide Dog’s uses, and letting the club leaders evaluate me as a potential puppy raiser. Some commands were universal, sit and down, but some were a little different- “Let’s Go!” for heel, “Go to bed” to go lay on a mat, and “Do your business” to tell a puppy it’s the time and place to use the bathroom.
After a few of these meetings came the scary in-home interview and home inspection. The club leaders came over to make sure my home was fit to raise a puppy, and because I had a personal dog- my Dalmatian, Chili Pepper- to make sure that Pepper was friendly with other dogs. They check things like secure fencing for a backyard, or to ensure that a pool is fenced off from where the puppy will be using the backyard. They make sure there’s nothing lying around that a puppy could get into, and have a home interview to make sure the entire family is on board and really wants to raise a puppy. As I was in high school at the time, and 17 years old, my mom had to agree to co-raise the puppy with me as my guardian. Since we lived in a 2 bedroom apartment, we had no yard to be inspected, and our home visit went well. From there, I had to puppy-sit a younger puppy and an older puppy for two different weekends, to get a feel for what it was like and how much work would be involved. As soon as that was done I was cleared to raise my own puppy!
When you are told that there is a puppy ready for you, you only get the sex of the puppy and the letter of the puppy’s litter. You don’t find out the name until you actually pick your puppy up. So I was told my puppy would be an “H” puppy, and we spent the rest of the week thinking up all kinds of H names that the puppy could be named. We weren’t even close. That Saturday we drove to the campus and picked up Hawkins from the weaning kennel at Guide Dogs. They provided us a puppy collar with a tag on it, and an adult sized collar with a tag on it. Since this was my first puppy, I also got a small nylon puppy leash, a larger leather leash, a cable ‘tie-down’, a nylabone toy, and a tiny green puppy cape. As my puppy grew, I would exchange this puppy cape for large ones from my guide dog raising leaders.
Picking Hawkins up at the Guide Dog campus
We stopped for lunch on the way home, and Hawkins got a chance to wear his little green cape for the first time in public. Because he was so small and not yet potty trained, I carried him into the restaurant. After a few moments of sniffing the floor under the table, he plopped right down.
Now it’s important to understand that guide dog puppies have no access rights. While they wear a little cape to identify them as puppies in training, they are not guaranteed access into public areas by law like a working guide dog (except in the state of Oregon, where the law makes no distinction between a puppy and a working guide). While most businesses are understanding about letting us take puppies inside, if we are asked to leave, we cannot push the issue. Luckily that only happened once the whole time I was raising. Most places are happy to see the puppies come and go and in many restaurants, no one knew there was a puppy in there until we stood up to leave and the puppy came out from under the table! Most people don’t realize that it’s not the dog that has the access rights, it’s the person with a disability that has the right to be accompanied by a dog that helps mitigate their disability. An important distinction. If you were to hand over a fully trained guide dog to a fully sighted person, that fully sighted person would have no protected rights to take that guide dog into any public building.
Hawkins in my high school physics lab
Nonetheless, Hawkins was my constant sidekick from day one. In California, just 90 minutes from the main campus of one of the world’s largest guide dog schools, most people know what these puppies are, and welcome them into places of business with open arms. Hawkins came to high school with me, including marching band practice in the morning, to all my classes during the day, and to track and field practice in the afternoons. He accompanied me to my evening job as an obedience trainer at PetsMart, and to weekend hangouts at the movies with my friends. He went into grocery stores, shopping malls, on the buses and subway trains into San Francisco, the closest large city to where I grew up in the East Bay of California. As a puppy club we took group outings to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Jack London Square in Oakland, Wednesday night street festivals in my hometown, even to the PacBell stadium to watch a game of baseball with the San Francisco Giants. Hawkins learned to be well behaved in public, ignore distractions, not eat food off the ground, ignore other animals and people, and how to interact with things like automatic sliding doors, shiny floors, statues of scary animals, metal grates on the sidewalk, loud noises, honking cars- things that Hawkins might encounter on a daily basis as a guide dog.
Me and Hawkins (far left) with my Dalmatian and some puppy raiser friends
Puppy raisers are given a manual with training tips, guidelines, problem solving strategies, and a list of appropriate outings based on a puppy’s age. It’s important not to do too much, too fast with a young puppy. A busy shopping mall at Christmas or a baseball stadium might be too much for a 4 month old puppy, but a 10 month old puppy should be able to handle it just fine. Slow and steady wins the race for puppy socialization. Every month puppy raisers submit training reports on their puppies, listing outings they’ve taken and writing up reports of any problems the puppy is showing. These are compiled and placed in a file to be given to the trainer when the puppies come back to ‘college’ so the trainer can see what’s been going on in the puppy’s training since day one.
Hawkins, getting bigger!
After about 16 months in their puppy raiser’s care, the dreaded letter comes in the mail. “The time has come for your puppy to return to our San Rafael, California school to begin training to become a Guide Dog.” The letter gives details on the weekend that your puppy needs to be returned, as well as the kennel’s hours. Including Hawkins, 7 puppies from our club were scheduled to go back for training that weekend.
That Saturday I put Hawkins in my truck and drove him the 90 minutes up to the guide dog school. I took some pictures, and with tear-filled eyes, I was lead to his kennel. The trainer told me to take my time, and to leave Hawkins in the kennel when I was ready to leave. I tried to explain to Hawkins how much I loved him and that I wasn’t abandoning him, but that he was going to be an amazing guide dog for someone. I also whispered to him that if he decided not to become a guide dog, he was always welcome home, but I knew as long as he didn’t chase his tail too much (something he loved to do) that he’d be a guide dog.
Hawkins, all grown up and ready for college
Monthly recall weekends can bring in several dozen dogs at each of the two training campuses, San Rafael, California and Boring, Oregon. Puppies that have been raised in far-off locations often return on Guide Dog’s puppy trucks, small buses that have been converted with veterinary kennels on either side of the aisle. Puppy staff drive these buses out to the remote raising states, dropping off new baby puppies and picking up adult puppies ready to come back to college. In this way, raisers in places like Utah are saved the expensive of a very long drive or even a flight back to pick up and return puppies. Everybody loves to see the puppy trucks!
Many people opt to raise again, and many people choose to pick up a new puppy that same day in order to heal the heartbreak of leaving your adult puppy in the ‘puppy dorms.’ While I had applied to raise another puppy, which I was supposed to pick up the same day I was dropping off Hawkins, my second puppy (who would end up being a black lab named Narci) had come down with a puppy tummy bug, and the kennel staff had decided it would be best to wait another week before I took him home. So I left the kennel with an empty leash, climbed into my truck and cried the whole way home.
After the first two weeks of initial health checks, hip and elbow x-rays, eye exams, blood work, complete physicals, and finally being neutered, Hawkins was placed into a training string with about 30 other dogs and roughly 4-5 trainers. The best of the best of the puppies that come in, who have the best physicals and certain personality traits that the breeding department would like to pass on to future guide dogs, are selected as breeders and are placed with ‘breeder custodian’ families, who keep the breeder as a family pet and bring it back to be bred when Guide Dogs requests. Since Hawkins was not selected as a breeder, he entered guide dog training. The training is broken down into 10 ‘phases’ and every week on Friday, the puppy raisers would get a ‘phase report’ which would tell us what phase of training our puppy is in. I waited on pins and needles every Friday to see if Hawkins would move up a phase. Over the next 5 months I watched Hawkins progress through the 10 phases until he was deemed ‘class ready.’
The dogs learn how to find and stop at down curbs and up curbs, how to find doorways and go around obstacles. The dogs are trained to look up to make sure there are no low lying branches or other things that might whack their handler in the head. They check for cars before crossing the street, and are trained to drag the handler backward to safety if a car unexpectedly pulls out. It is the handlers responsibility to know where they are going and to give directions to the guide dog. Although most guide dogs memorize familiar routes, the dogs themselves can’t read street signs or stop lights, so the handler must know how many blocks before turning right, and must pay attention to the sounds of traffic patterns to determine when it is most likely safe to cross the street. A guide dog’s final test is to escort a blindfolded trainer through one of the busiest areas around the campuses, downtown San Francisco or Portland.
When Hawkins finally mastered all of this he was placed with a visually impaired person. I received a letter inviting me to his graduation, just a week after my own high school graduation. When a visually-impaired person receives a guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., they come to one of the two campuses and stay for 28 days (if it’s their first guide dog) or a 2, 3 or 4-week refresher course if it’s their 2nd or subsequent guide dog. The first week is spent learning how to handle a dog and what commands the dogs use, and practice guide dog work is done with a trainer holding a harness and pretending to be a dog, or a rolled up rug with a collar on it, affectionately called “Juno. ” The trainers know the dogs they trained, and after a week of working with the students, they carefully match dog personality to people personality, and assign the class ready dogs to the visually-impaired students based on these factors to ensure a good match. In this way they make sure a heavy handed handler doesn’t get a soft dog, or a soft handler doesn’t get a headstrong dog. They also match pace, to ensure a slow walking dog doesn’t get placed with someone who prefers to walk fast.
Walkway on the California campus
Guide dogs pays for a student’s flight, as well as room and board costs, and of course, there is no charge for the dogs or their equipment. Students live in the on-campus dormitory, and meals are served restaurant-style in the dorm’s dining room. The dorms also have an exercise room, laundry rooms, a pool, and dog park areas where a student can walk their new dogs or let their dog off leash for time to romp and play. Student rooms are private, like a hotel room, with private baths and direct access to the outside courtyard for relieving dogs.
Students learn to use their new guide dogs first in the smaller city streets of San Rafael and Boring, working their way up to more complicated and difficult areas of San Francisco and Portland.
The final day of class is graduation day, and the puppy raisers get to come see their puppy again, and meet the handler that received their puppy. A graduation ceremony takes place, where puppy raisers present the puppies they raised to the handlers that will be their new best friends. On the graduation letter is the name and address of the new handler of the puppy you raised. So when I arrived on Saturday morning, I already knew the name of Hawkins’ new handler, and I knew Hawkins would be going to live in the great state of Texas. I brought along my current guide dog puppy, black lab Narci, as well as a scrapbook of pictures of Hawkins’ puppy days, along with captions in braille, done by the lovely receptionist at Guide Dogs. Very few visually-impaired people are totally blind, a majority have some sight, ranging from light perception to tunnel vision to peripheral vision, or spotted/blurred vision, and some can even make out some of the pictures included. Although people laugh, even today, when I tell them I gave a scrapbook of pictures to each of my graduating guide dog puppy’s handlers, the truth is, even if they can’t see the pictures themselves, they have friends and family members who can, and who doesn’t love to show off puppy pictures? For each scrapbook I gave out, I found out the graduate’s preferred method of reading, and transcribed the scrapbook in that way. Some scrapbooks were done in Grade 1 Braille, some in Grade 2 (shorthand) and some I recoded on cassette tape, describing each picture on a voice recorder.
When Hawkins saw me at the end of the hallway, he took a flying leap at me, and I dropped everything I was holding, including Narci’s leash. Luckily my friend was with me and she quickly grabbed Narci before he could scamper off like the mischievous puppy he still was, and picked up my things as Hawkins turned himself inside out in excitement. We were all able to visit for a short while before the ceremony, some pictures were taken by the photographer, then Hawkins was left with me while the graduates lined up on stage. One at a time the puppy raisers came out and presented the new guide dogs to their new owners. After the ceremony we went out to lunch, and I was able to see Hawkins in action as a real guide dog for the first time. After lunch I said my goodbyes to Hawkins and his new handler, and left the guide dog school, happy that Hawkins was now a working guide dog.
Hawkins in harness, now a fully-fledged guide dog!
I went on to raise three more puppies and co-raised a fourth for guide dogs, before moving out of state and out of the puppy raising territory. When I moved to Texas several years later, I thought of Hawkins, living just 4 hours away, but decided against writing or calling. I was busy with work, graduate school, competing with my own dogs in schutzhund, and working with a search and rescue team, and I figured his handler was probably equally as busy. I missed raising, and while I lived there, Guide Dogs started a brand new puppy raising club in Dallas, the same city that Hawkins was working in (I would find out years later that they actually moved out of Texas, but I didn’t know this at the time), but at 4 hours away, it was too far for me to become a puppy raiser again. Shortly after I left Texas, having graduated from my graduate program, a puppy club would open in Austin where I was living, ironically.
I moved temporarily to Tennessee and it was in December of 2012, nearly 10 years after I’d last seen Hawkins, that Guide Dogs gave me a call. Hawkins had been retired due to his advancing age (he was approaching 12 years old) and some arthritis. His handler couldn’t keep him in his old age, and he’d been returned to the guide dog school for placement. Did I want him back?
Did I want him back?! Yes!! Of course! I jumped at the chance to bring home my Hawky-Wockie with the cute pink nose. The ‘corndog’ puppy (so nicknamed because he was yellow on the outside, pink on the inside, and a total goofball). But I was in the middle of getting ready to move to West Palm Beach for a job offer, and couldn’t get him. Even if Guide Dogs brought him to me, I had no where to put him. So I called my mom, who still lived in California, who owned one of my puppies, and my co-raised puppy, that had both failed guide dog school. She was happy to keep Hawkins for me for a few months, and made the drive to the California campus to collect him.
Picking Hawkins up
Guide dogs takes care of their dogs, even into old age. When a dog retires, the handlers, of course, can keep them as pets themselves, but for many handlers, that’s not an option. Especially if they live in a no-pets apartment, when the dog retires and is not being used a guide dog, their access rights expire, too. Some handlers travel extensively for work, and can’t leave their retired guide at home, and some are nervous about caring for an elderly dog with no way to get to the emergency vet quickly if their dog were to go downhill fast. Guide dogs always asks the dog’s puppy raisers first if they would like the dog back. If the puppyraiser can’t, then there is a long waiting list of people who love to adopt these elderly dogs, and Guide Dogs spares no expense finding the perfect homes for any of their dogs being released from the program.
When I finally picked Hawkins up I was excited to see him again. Other than a white face now, he looked much the same, same blocky head, same cute pink nose. Same happy labby smile. I’m not sure he remembered me, but followed me about the house nonetheless. I drove him back to Florida, stopping for a pit stop in northern Florida, where his handler now lived. He hadn’t seen Hawkins since the previous December, and when I found out he was right along the drive home, I offered to stop for a visit. Hawkins was happy to see the family he’d spent the last 10 years with, and the afternoon seemed to fly by before I realized we’d have to head out in order to make it home before 3am.
Hawkins is now happily enjoying his guide dog retirement, lounging in the sun on the grass, chewing bones, and eating cookies. He’ll live out his final days here (of which he has many left- he’s in great shape for a 12 year old dude), and it seems most fitting that, while he started life with me in California, he’s come down here to south Florida, like so many other retirees, to enjoy the warmth and sunshine in his retirement. And pretty soon, he’ll be helping me start the process all over again with a brand new guide dog puppy…
Epilogue: Shortly before Christmas of his 13th year, Hawkins was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a.k.a. spleen cancer. Sadly it had already spread to his heart and lungs by the time we detected it. The Guide Dog school spared no expense, paying for all his veterinary needs. We kept him comfortable, had an enjoyable last Christmas with him, and then made THE appointment at the vet in late January when he started to go downhill quickly. Hawkins didn’t make it all the way to the vet that day- he died in the backseat of the car with me holding his head, while we were waiting for the vet techs to bring a stretcher. Luckily, through the miracle of technology, Hwakins had a long FaceTime call with his former handler the night before he died, and perked up quite a bit, waging his tail and looking around for the source of his handler’s voice. It was a privilege to spend his first year and a half and his last year and a half with such an amazing dog.