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Pandemic Pups: How Quarantine Has Impacted Guide Dog Training

FEI LU, HOST: For many blind and visually impaired people, guide dogs bring a new level of independence. But during the last year, few trained guide dogs are available for placement with owners. In New Jersey, at an organization called The Seeing Eye, just 170 people received guide dogs -- a third fewer than normal. As Katie Anastas reports, the pandemic has put much of the training process on hold.

KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: Kassandra Hernandez was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. It’s a genetic eye disorder that causes debilitating light sensitivity and farsightedness. She could get by using a cane, but she says it was mentally exhausting.

KASSANDRA HERNANDEZ: Maybe my cane would miss something and I would run into it, or maybe I’d lose my footing on, like, a manhole or something like that, because they’re constantly doing construction in the city.

ANASTAS: Then, Hernandez got her guide dog. He’s a yellow lab named Tagg. Tagg helps her walk on crowded city sidewalks, safely navigate subway platforms, and even run 5Ks. He’s trained to step between Hernandez and oncoming traffic. He knows to disobey if her commands put them in danger. For Hernandez, this was life-changing.

HERNANDEZ: I’m not as nervous to go through an airport by myself or take a train to another city. I completely trust this animal. I completely trust my dog. Because New York City is hard.

ANASTAS: But during the pandemic, subway platforms have been empty, airports deserted, and streets quiet.

Zack Gittlen is an outreach manager with Guide Dogs of America, the national organization that connected Hernandez with Tagg. He says the lack of the usual, crowded environments means it takes longer to train the dogs.

ZACK GITTLEN: It means that a dog that might have been ready within a year and a half is going to take two years, two and a half years.

ANASTAS: Training guide dogs is a two-stage process. First, volunteers raise them from when they’re about 8 weeks old to a year old. They help them get accustomed to a wide range of environments, like grocery stores, movie theaters, and restaurants.

Then, the dogs go back to Guide Dogs of America, or a similar organization, for four to six months. There, they learn to navigate other physical challenges, like construction blocking sidewalks, or cars running red lights.

LOIS GAGNE: The one we have currently, he’s our 18th puppy. It’s a blast.

ANASTAS: Lois Gagne is a longtime guide dog puppy raiser. Her last dog was a black labrador and golden retriever mix named Harry.

GAGNE: They’re a little softer than a lab. He had a little feathering on his tail. He’s a great dog. One of my favorites.

ANASTAS: Harry was about halfway through his puppy training when the pandemic hit.

Harry had to learn how to recognize the bumpy yellow edge of a subway platform, so he could keep his future handler away from it. The first step was getting him familiar with those kinds of surfaces. But with subway platforms quiet or off-limits, Gagne took Harry to a parking lot, where she knew there was a bumpy section of concrete.

GAGNE: This morning we’re walking on uneven surfaces. Hard to do on my own here, but Harry has zero concerns.

ANASTAS: In his yellow guide dog vest, Harry waits for instructions. Gagne apologizes to him for how it must feel on his paws.

GAGNE: Sorry, it’s really rough.

ANASTAS: But he does it. He walks right alongside her, never pulling on his leash, occasionally looking up at Gagne when she talks.

GAGNE: And he’s really awesome about walking on loose leash and his normal day to day activities. He’s being a pretty good boy. Harry, sit. Good sit. Alright, let’s go. Good boy.

ANASTAS: Another challenge for guide dogs is staying focused on their job when they see another dog. But since Gagne and Harry couldn’t go to crowded places, he had little practice.

So Gagne and four other puppy trainers arranged to meet outside IKEA, so the dogs could get used to being around each other. As she comes up to the group, Harry’s tail is wagging a mile a minute. He pulls on the leash, something a dog at his level should never do. Getting distracted by other dogs could disqualify them from ever working as a guide.

Harry also had to get used to loud city noises. When it was time for his training at the Guide Dog Foundation in Long Island, a trainer took him to a subway station for the first time.

GAGNE: The subway train came up and hit the air brakes, and he was terrified and hit the ground.

ANASTAS: With more work, Harry got better at dealing with noises and other dogs. But his trainers were still concerned he might not fully be ready. When Harry’s eventual handler first called looking for a new dog...

GAGNE: They said, “We don’t think we have anybody for you. Our raisers haven’t been able to go anywhere.”

ANASTAS: But the handler was so experienced--this was his fourth dog--that it seemed like Harry might be a good fit.

Other dogs Harry’s age will continue training before they’re ready to work. As New York re-opens, puppy raisers are going out again, and the dogs are learning to navigate a busy city. Zack Gittlen, from Guide Dogs of America, says trainers are helping the dogs catch up on what they’ve missed.

GITTLEN: If we're equating it to an injury, it's not like a wound. It's more of a bruise. Like it will heal. It's just going to take a little bit more work, a little bit more time.

ANASTAS: Kassandra Hernandez says over the year of isolation, she saw Tagg’s training begin to fade--he began to act more like a typical dog. Both of them were eager to re-enter the world.

HERNANDEZ: Within the past month we’ve been getting back to our old life and it feels great. When you pull the harness out, Tagg will just run into it.

ANASTAS: She says Tagg is more than happy to get out and start working again. Katie Anastas, Columbia Radio News.

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