Guide Dogs for the Blind: More Than Really Good Pups, They Offer People Unwavering Friendship and Freedom
For people who are blind or visually impaired, the world is often a little different than for others. So when the right BFF (best furry friend!) comes along, everything becomes a whole lot better.
"I love when he plays fetch with me and how excited he gets when he sees me come home from school. He jumps up and down!" This glowing report is from Luke Herbert, age 8, of Ft. Lewis–McChord, Wash. He's talking about Yeti, his 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.
Wait—there's more. "Yeti also gives the best slobber kisses!" he tells Daily Paws. Yep, that's the good stuff right there.
Few relationships compare to the bond between a boy and his dog, but Luke and Yeti are an extra-special team. Luke has braved 14 surgeries in his young life and is legally blind. His parents, Stephanie and Matthew Herbert, requested help from Guide Dogs for the Blind's K9 Buddy Program. Now, Luke and Yeti are like brothers, and his parents are thrilled. They've seen an extra boost of confidence in their son, who loves to take Yeti exploring with him and can approach his peers more easily if his BFF is by his side.
"Luke has also just grown so much as an individual by really learning to take care of someone other than himself," the Herberts say. "He's gaining real-life skills from taking care of Yeti that will benefit him far into adulthood. We are so proud of both of them and can't wait to see where their relationship takes them!"
Luke adds that he loves having Yeti, especially since he always makes him feel better when he's sad or doesn't feel good. More importantly, "I get to keep him forever!" he says.
Changing Lives, One Talented Pup at a Time
Susan Armstrong is the vice president of training, client services, and diversity, equity, and inclusion at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif. She says it often surprises people to learn that guide dogs only work a few hours a day but get to be with their best friend 24/7, leaving a lot of time for playing and snuggles!
Considered the largest guide dog school in North America, GDB provides services free of charge, including personalized training and extensive post-graduation support for guide dog teams, plus financial assistance for veterinary care, if needed. After years of breed evaluation for health, temperament, size, coat type, and adaptability, Armstrong says GBD currently uses yellow and black Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and golden and Labrador mixes.
Donors and volunteers are the backbone of the program. "GDB harnesses the power of partnerships—connecting people, dogs, and communities—to transform the lives of individuals with visual impairments," Armstrong says. "When people receive their guide dogs, they gain independence and skills to navigate their surroundings with greater safety and confidence."
While the mobility aspect of guide dog teams is certainly vital, Armstrong adds that they're often gateways for inclusion, which is just as essential. "Our dogs serve as social bridges to the community. Most everyone wants to say hello to or interact with a dog, so our clients experience great inclusion and opportunity," she says. "That said, please remember to ask before interacting with a working guide [or service] dog."
A Guide Dog Equals Freedom … and Family
Armstrong says guide dog teams are true partnerships: the person is the navigator, and the dog is the pilot. This arrangement changed Paul Castle's life completely.
"Prior to Maple, I was increasingly afraid of the 'outside world.' The idea of leaving my house, armed only with my white cane, filled me with anxiety and apprehension," he tells Daily Paws. "I would worry about the stigma of my disability, the sideways glances (that I couldn't see but imagined anyway), and the hidden dangers from which a cane simply couldn't protect me."
Castle has a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, which he likens to "looking through a straw." Based in Seattle, he was often concerned about drivers not obeying stop signs, bicycles that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and "people too distracted by their phones to notice the blind guy whose cane they just accidentally kicked."
GBD helped him with Maple, also a yellow Lab, and now he has more confidence than ever.
"My fearless leader expertly maneuvers around cars, bicycles, and distracted pedestrians with grace and ease," he says. "Whereas before I would create excuses not to leave my house, now I invent reasons to walk out my front door and explore the city around me. While I have less vision than ever before, my sense of independence is exponentially greater."
But one of the most surprising benefits for Castle was how Maple enhanced the dynamic between him and his husband, Matthew Olshefski. "Because Maple joins us everywhere, from restaurants to vacations to weekly Costco shopping, we really feel like a family of three," Castle says. "It has, quite unexpectedly, made us feel even closer to each other as a married couple."
On his Instagram page, artist Castle shares a lot of fun facts about Maple. For example, the 2-and-a-half-year-old cuddlesome pooch maintains a brisk pace of nearly 4 mph, loves bones, lays at Olshefski's feet while he plays violin and can, um, poop on command.
"He's only on duty while wearing his harness. Otherwise, he's just a pup," Castle posts. Yes, but such a good pup!