Leaders of the Pack: The life of Guide Dog Mobility Instructors
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A light frost lay on the ground as Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Jim Dugan made his way out to the kennels. Bundled against the cold, he was still feeling an inner warmth from his morning cup of coffee. He raised the latch on the kennel gate with an echoing clang. In response, he was greeted with happy barks. The dogs were obviously feeling frisky this morning, all dancing and cavorting, their breath like white smoke in the still air. They were happy to see him, eager to get going. And, Jim realized, he was happy to be training them.
His charges, eight dogs currently in their second month of training, are at a stage where Jim is teaching them the fundamentals of becoming a guide.
"It's a lot of trial and error for the dogs," he explained. "My job is to get them relaxed so they can respond comfortably to commands. I allow them to make decisions on their own."
Being a Guide Dog mobility instructor involves a lot more than just training dogs. The job cycle includes: dog training, class training (where the dogs are matched with their blind partners and learn to work as teams), graduation and follow-up. Instructors usually take some vacation time after graduation, and then travel on follow-up visits to graduates in the field. They then return to campus, are assigned a new group of dogs, and begin the cycle once again. The job requires extensive people skills—tact, professionalism, humor, flexibility, and the ability to teach others. It challenges the body, the mind, and the emotions.
Every part of the job has its unique challenges. Field Manager and Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Emily Scott explained some of the physical challenges involved in the job:
"When you're training dogs every day, dealing with the weather is a big factor," she said. "And it's a challenge to keep your body in shape. The first part of dog training is the hardest on the body, and if you've been through a cycle of class, vacation and follow-up, your tendency is to let yourself go. It's really important to stay in shape by using weights and doing some form of aerobic exercise so your body will be strong enough to return to dog training."
Follow-up trips (where Guide Dog mobility instructors visit our alumni throughout the U.S. and Canada) are physically demanding on their own due to long days spent on the road. Follow-up trips can last as long as two weeks. But that's part of what keeps being an instructor an exciting career choice. Emily said, "The job is wonderful because of the variety. It doesn't get monotonous or become routine."
A petite black Lab looks up lovingly at Instructor Kathy O'Connor in response to her words of praise. Kathy's dogs are being readied for a class of new students that arrive in just two weeks. She is at the point in the training cycle where she soon will have to let go of her attachment to the dogs she has spent months growing to love.
"For me, personally, the day that the dogs are matched with the students is the day that you try to detach emotionally from the dogs. You start to see the team before you see the individual dog," she said. "That's the hardest day and also the best day. From then on, it's much easier for me to deal with the loss—and you do feel loss because you've put so much into the training of these dogs. But now you have a new project: help this team become successful; help this team complete the class training and go home with a good foundation."
Kathy says that the consolation to saying goodbye is witnessing the tremendous impact a Guide Dog has on its new partner. "My first couple of times going to class, there were quite a few tears—there are still tears," she said. "Then I started to experience the fun of class and the exhilaration of seeing the bond between the dog and the student build—that's special and that's what I look forward to. That's what has driven me and that's what has inspired me.
"Even though there's a lot of emotion involved with the dogs and letting go and moving on to the next group," she continued, "the reward—there's nothing really to compare it to. You gotta' go on—you gotta' know that you're going to fall in love with another little black Labrador Retriever who's going to be fun and hard to work with and smart and challenging… and that's what keeps you going."
Master Instructor Todd Jurek feels the same way. "When I first started here, it used to be very difficult for me to let go," he said. "After a few years you get more professional and it doesn't bother you as much. You definitely bond with some more than others. You always remember the dogs you had to work the hardest with."
Tears of loss, tears of pride—there's a lot of emotion that goes along with being an instructor, as Emily's experiences illustrate: "After graduation, I spend my first two days off just vegetating – watching videos and TV just to unwind," she said. "But I also check my voice mail all the time. I want to hear from the graduates. I want to know how their dogs are doing. You get so attached to people when they're in class. My last class gave me a poem and a picture—I know I'll look at that in years to come and always remember them. Class is just the best!"
Despite the emotional roller coaster, Emily wouldn't have it any other way. "While I'm training a dog, I'm always thinking, "Who do I see paired with a dog like this?' The best part of the job for me is taking dogs to a certain level and then watching them just blossom when they're paired with a student," she said. "I love it when they far surpass all my expectations. Seeing the person put all their trust in the dog, and the dog respond to them by taking responsibility, gives an instructor a huge sense of pride and accomplishment. There's no other job like it."
"This is not just a 9-to-5 job," Emily said. "You have to be dedicated and flexible. Things can change on a daily basis and you just have to roll with it. We're continually changing and improving our training—there are continually new things to learn. I find it easier to be positive toward change—it really helps if you don't get rigid."
Class sometimes amounts to 80 hours of work in as little as six days. "You live, eat, and breathe the dorm," she continued. "Sometimes the only contact with what's going on in the outside world is what you hear from the students. It's hard to leave your family to spend nights in the dorm, but it gives you a chance to get to know the students on a level aside from training. Class can be hard sometimes. It's more mental exertion than physical for the instructors."
She explains why: "For many of our students, leaving friends, family and home to spend a month in training is a daunting proposition." If students are stressed, worried, or anxious, that has a direct impact on an instructor's mindset, and vice versa. "If I can be supportive, honest and up-front from the outset, I can help them. I'm not the kind of person to smooth things over and make it seem as though everything is all right if it isn't. I think it's better to work things out in a respectful way."
Emily also believes that, in addition to a positive attitude, communication and humor are two crucial elements in alleviating some of the mental strain that can take place during class training. "I think it's really important to get input from students—especially our retrain students," she said. "Some of them have been using Guide Dogs since before I was born! They have things to teach me! And I like helping my students to laugh—if they're laughing, it means they feel comfortable, and if they're comfortable, they'll learn."
Guide Dogs and their blind partners aren't the only teams at Guide Dogs. Licensed Guide Dog mobility instructors are team leaders in regard to their working relationships with other Training Department staff. They take responsibility for, lead, and organize their respective "teams" —groups of 4-6 people consisting of instructors, apprentices and instructor assistants—as they prepare a string of starting with 25-50 dogs for class. Team leaders, in turn, are guided by the knowledge and experience of class supervisors who work with them from early dog training right on through to graduation. Supervisors ensure teams are communicating and that there's continuity in all phases of training.
"There isn't one person here who does it by themselves," Kathy said. "We all have a group of people who are our partners. There's a lot of work to do when we're training dogs and we need each other."
"A career as an instructor is truly a commitment—it's not just playing with dogs," Jim explained. "Yes, it's wonderful, even incredible, but it's hard to train a Guide Dog. Our standards as a school are incredibly high. Dogs just don't pop out of the womb knowing how to be guides. Instructors invest many years of their lives learning to train them."
Kathy agreed. "There are some days you feel that your job is just a big struggle and other days when you feel that it's magical, but mostly it's just hard work. If you're able to come to work in the morning and get out there and dig in, it's clear to everyone who works with you," she said. "The instructors that I admire the most are the ones who clearly love what they're doing and who show a lot of ingenuity and creativity in the way they work with students. They have fun in the process. I appreciate their ability to be inspiring and motivational because it is hard.
"Passion, inspiration, dedication, and a spirit that says, "This is what I'm going to do with my life and I'm going to do the best I can at it,' are traits that make a good Guide Dog instructor. I hope that people can get that kind of inspiration from me."