GDB Discontinues GSD Guide Dogs

Recently, a letter sent to Guide Dogs for the Blind graduates was made public on the National Association of Guide Dog Users email list:

After being part of our history for sixty-five years, we are regretfully nearing the end of the German Shepherd breed in our program. This foundation breed, first matched with veterans returning from World War II, has served our graduates well for many decades, but times have changed. The number of guide dog users that match well with a German Shepherd have diminished and our world has become faster, more congested, and distracting creating additional challenges for this generally alert, active breed.

Certainly, there are some German Shepherds who fill the bill admirably and are wonderful working guides. The issue we face is the majority of this breed does not fulfill the work they were bred for and the very issues which make them incompatible with the program make them difficult dogs to manage overall.

We are not alone on this issue. The decline of the German Shepherd breed for guide dog work has been recognized by other leading guide dog schools around the world. A poll of 70 international guide dog schools found that although 36 use the breed in their respective training programs, not a single one cited the German Shepherd Dog as the best suited for guide dog use in today’s busy environment.

Our breeding specialists, veterinarians, and instructors have been tracking this emerging trend for several years and have worked to reverse it through breeding exchanges within guide dog programs, outside purchases of breeders and puppies, donated dogs, and rescue organizations. Through all these efforts the success rate continues well below the colony average.

The large percentage that does not qualify for the program gives us strong reason for concern. These are dogs that are active, vocal and often have a hard time adjusting to a kennel environment. Staff resources must be focused on managing a small number of dogs to provide a quality of life that meets our high standards of care. General traits of the breed including high energy, tendencies toward protectiveness, and prey drive contribute to their complexities of success as a Guide Dog or as a pet. Guide Dogs for the Blind devotes tremendous effort into finding suitable adoptive homes for these dogs that will offer quality of life to both the dog and the adopter.

We have reviewed these combined factors from an ethical and humane standpoint and are adhering to our decision to only add breeding stock to our colony that meets our criteria. Thus, the anticipated decline of the German Shepherd breeding colony, as first reported last spring, has now materialized.

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Our Last Day

Yara’s started just ignoring her breakfast the last few days. Yesterday, she actually vomited while we were out, but she wouldn’t eat any of the treats we bought so I guess she’s fine enough. Last night I gave her two cups of food for dinner rather than the standard cup and a half and she ate it all up, albeit very slowly.

Anyway, we went to Crossgates Mall yesterday. Megan and I both were rather surprised that it wasn’t more crowded, but still we got a good share of pedestrian traffic to work around and a lot of strange obstacle work. Yara did excellent, as always. She walked me into another store front window that kind of jutted out, but all I did was drop the handle and she worked right around it the second time. We did some escalator work (read: gave me heart failure). I loathe escalators with a fierce passion, but Yara didn’t mind them at all. In fact, she kept indicating them when we’d pass by another set and would bring me right up to them even when I’d try to work her passed. It was amusing. We also did our first elevator and I think this time Yara nearly had heart failure as it was a glass one and she seemed rather positive if she got too close to the edge she was going to fall off or something untoward would happen. Poor baby. She was fine once I moved over a bit so she could turn in the opposite direction and not be so preoccupied with her possible demise.

Yara curled in a ball, lying in the corner by the front doorLater on, we went out to dinner at Pinhead Susan’s for our “Fidelco meal” and it was pretty packed. Yara was a total lazy bum and lounged out as much as she could under our table and my chair. Surprisingly, I’d never eaten there before! We’d had a slice of pizza at the mall, and I actually had some breakfast, but I was starving by the time we arrived and hardly could decide on what to get. I had some turkey artichoke dip sandwich thing and it was pretty yummy.

Today was our last official “day” of training and so we did all our paperwork and I signed my contract. Then, since it’s literally freezing out, we went to Walmart and did some laps while we shopped around. Nothing too strenuous and Yara was a total angel the entire time. She didn’t make even one mistake; I’m incredibly proud!

With the exception of a trip to NYC that will happen “sometime” that finished up everything we needed to do for our training. I can’t believe how fast it went! I’m kind of sad, to be honest, but I think it was really a very thorough ten days and I definitely learned a lot. As for Yara, I think it’ll be a wonderful match.

I leave you with one more grainy cell phone photograph above and now I am off for I am quite hungry. More updates on my lovely girl to come.

Lesson #1 In Differences Between Dolly and Yara

I used to say that if Dolly could talk she would weave quite a tale of abuse and neglect by my hands just judging from some of the facial expressions she’d give me in response to commands or corrections.

I’m beginning to feel I really am abusing Yara. The poor girl is just so sensitive, as I’ve mentioned many times. She reacts to just the slightest stumble or slip when we work in harness. I’ve learned that I don’t need a firm hand with correcting her at all, I’ve had to force myself to not take the leash to prod her to get going but to rely only on my voice most times. Even the simple act of dropping the harness handle is enough to get her attention without saying a thing when she’s made a mistake like walking me into something.

Anyway, so I’ve already seen that she enjoys the snow. Sunday she was eating snowflakes while we waited for our taxi and yesterday she got to play in the park. When I took her out to relieve after dinner last night, she jumped right into a snowbank and started tossing snow all over. So I thought it would be just fine to get some shoveling done while she was out there playing.

Uhm. I was wrong.

I tossed a shovel full of snow onto the pile and some of it flew in her face and she literally went into a panic. She did the whole startle and duck and I’m sure anyone that saw us would have sworn I kicked her in the face. I felt so bad. I’m a bit used to Dolly, who literally lives for snow. She burrows under it, she digs through it, she tosses it in the air and shoves her head straight into it. She loves to be in the middle of snowball fights and she will actually chase snow being shoveled1 if she’s around at the time.

I feel like a very poor canine mommy.

  1. A lot like this dog.

Training Recap

Busy last few days, been far too exhausted to even attempt meaningful posts. So I give you a quick rundown of the last few days.1

Monday was another “off” day for us and so the initial plan was to go back to Rotterdam Square Mall for a third time; however, I goofed when transferring buses and instead I just went to the local Price Chopper. Aside from not being used to me manhandling her for proper and safe positioning on the bus, Yara did amazingly well. And, as humorous as it may sound, I’m glad to say we survived our first experience of getting lost.

Tuesday, Megan and I took Yara to the SUNY Albany campus to work a bit inside and out. It’s a great place to kind of “test out” so to speak, since it’s not exactly guide dog friendly; especially when the fountains are off. The campus literally looks the same from every direction so there are very few landmarks and while a cane user can just follow the buildings along to find her way, a guide dog user is faced with many wide open spaces. There’s also a lot of random drop-offs right near stairs and some of them are fairly high and devoid of guard rails. We got to work with stairs for the first time and not surprisingly Fidelco’s method is slightly different than what I learned at GEB. Both are equally awkward, though, as you end up placing a foot on the first step before going forward. It’s a rather strange position to stand in with your hand on the harness. Yara was very good and for the most part wasn’t too distracted by all the people and the new surroundings. We worked with following again and it’s always so interesting to see her figure things out when she doesn’t quite give me enough clearance. I tripped over a stool in the library and afterwards she was extremely cautious when we would pass another one.

We’d planned to have Dolly and Yara meet that night, but as I was making dinner Keith called to bow out since the weather was getting pretty nasty near him. In the end, Megan came over anyway and we had the huge pasta dinner I’d whipped up without him. It was quite nice just chatting and having some good food. Megan was pretty shocked to see how calm Yara actually has been around here. She mentioned that she sees a lot of Yara’s brother, Yano, in her with the very mellow ability to just lie there and “crash out.” I have to admit I would never have expected it of her, judging from the first day she was here, but I’m glad she isn’t totally hyper and insane all the time. I think I’d be driven mad.

Wednesday, we worked traffic; Des came up from Fidelco to do the driving for us. I really, really love how thorough Fidelco handles traffic checks! We had pretty much any scenario you could imagine with a car, from turning in on us as we crossed a street to starting up in a driveway as we approached. As I predicted, Yara did amazingly well. She’s very cautious, her stops are very well defined. Des went so far as to really solidify the point of the car being a threat by pushing her back a few times. I was so incredibly proud of her. And not just about the traffic, either; she makes a point to try and walk me around ice and snow patches if she can and she’s very good about slowing down if we have to walk over ice. Actually, we hit a patch of black ice that neither Yara or Megan caught and we all nearly fell down, which just made Yara that much more cautious to avoid anything in the path. When we finished, Des took us aside and took some photographs.2 I’m not so sure how well they turned out given I had a hat on right before and it was quite windy. Still, once I get my copies, I’ll be sure to share them. Next up, we took a quick trip to my vet, to start a file for Yara, and City Hall, for her license.

Today we did some “country travel,” which is to say we walked around where there are no defined curbs or sidewalks. I’m glad we did get it in, since it is slightly different than the way Guiding Eyes taught me with the indenting at crossings. But I always find country work to be exceedingly slow and tedious. Yara spent most of it sort of distracted by the new place and I was practically frozen by the time we got back to the van.

Then, we did some more familiar routes in downtown. It was even more cold at this point, so we decided to not make it a terribly long walk since the forecast called for some snow in the afternoon. Yara did awesome with her curb stops and didn’t need much prodding to get right up to the edge for once. Megan told me later that she’s very impressed with how Yara avoids even the smallest little ice patch or toe trip that we pass. I really only noticed the bigger things we avoided like some parked cars and a bunch of pedestrians. In fact, I kind of scared Yara at one point because we were walking through a narrow part of the sidewalk when a bunch of people passed us on the left and Yara moved over to the right to avoid the ice and people and I got my foot stuck between the side of a low wall as we squished over. I always feel bad when I startle her by faltering because she reacts so much, but then she recovers so fast and gets right back on task that it’s hardly an issue. Megan and I both think it’ll just take her a bit of time to not freak out about that kind of stuff.

Anyway, we stopped off at a small diner and warmed up some. The elderly woman running it was very pleasant, she gave us the standard question routine and then told us about her blind sister and her pet dog. As we sat there drinking our coffee, the weather changed really quick and started to snow quite hard! Not long after it had started, we left to head home and the streets were already covered in a wet, slippery snow. By the time we got back to the van, there was already a good two or three inches covering everything.

Rather than head straight home, though, we decided that it might be fun to take Yara and Megan’s puppy, Stella, to the park. Stella was definitely in need of some exercise, having been cooped up in the van all morning and Yara was due for some unwinding since we didn’t work as long or walk as far as usual. The park was already covered in snow, and underlying was very slick since a lot of the snow and ice from before had melted in the warmer weather the last few days. Megan and I both took a spill in the parking lot before we even got the dogs out! Stella and Yara had a grand time chasing each other around the fenced-in ball park. Yara kept getting all fierce with Stella, who despite being about a quarter in size, was dishing it right back. They’d race around the perimeter of the fence and then wipe out completely when they’d hit a slick patch. It was pretty funny. We let them have their fill for about twenty minutes or so until Stella literally knocked me right over when she ran headfirst into my knee! I’m glad she didn’t end up hurting me, but I think it shocked Megan quite a bit!

We plowed our way through the snow back to my house and worked a bit with Yara on recalls, as well as positioning her properly for public transit rides. It’s hard to believe we’re basically done with the obedience stuff. And now we only have two more days of training; it’s gone so quickly!

  1. More like, long-winded and rambly rundown, but whatever.
  2. Four separate photos were taken. One for my guide dog handler’s identification card, another of Megan, Yara and I, one of just Yara and myself, and the last of Yara alone for her foster family.

A List (Mostly for Myself)

I’m devoid of anything of substance to post today, so instead I give you my list of some of the random things I need to discuss with Megan when she gets back tomorrow.1

  • Introducing Dolly and Yara. (Tentatively set for Tuesday night.)
  • Using the Met as our New York City destination for Saturday’s trip.
  • Work with Yara about getting into cars!
  • Yara. Food. Oiy!
  • The loose clasp on the prong collar.
  • . . . There was something else and now I forget . . . Poo.
  1. I know, aren’t you thrilled beyond telling?