If you followed along on our series of articles about the training our students go through when they come on campus to get their guide dogs, then you know a bit about the process of matching up someone with their perfect guide. Well, it is actually quite a bit more involved than we were able to cover there, so we wanted to delve a bit deeper into the science and art of the perfect match.
The match process starts long before the students arrive on campus. As the trainers take their dogs through the training process, they are keeping track of all the dog’s idiosyncrasies, each little thing to which they react, how fast they tend to walk, the ease or difficulty of correcting them and myriad other little nuances that will aid in finding the perfect person for them to guide.
Detailed training logs are kept of each dog, so the trainers can refer back to them at any time, all in preparation for when the dogs will be matched.
On the student side of things, information is gathered from the very first contact. Admissions/Graduate Services conducts in-depth interviews to learn as much about the student as possible prior to being accepted into the program.
After completing an application and a series of phone interviews, a home visit is made by one of our certified trainers. During this visit, the trainer is looking at a variety of criteria to aid in making the right match. The student is taken on a “Juno” walk where the trainer holds the harness as if they are the dog guiding the student (Juno was one of the first guide dogs, hence the name).
Here they are noting the student’s “pace and pull;” the pace at which they prefer to walk; and how much pressure they need on the harness handle in order to be guided. They will do this same exercise when they come on campus, but having them do it in a familiar environment may net different results, as their confidence is usually higher in an area that is not foreign to them.
During the home visit, the trainer is also paying attention to the area in which the person lives and learning about his or her day-to-day life. Whether the area is urban or rural, how active the person is, and even how tidy will make a difference in the dog the student is eventually matched with. Now you are probably wondering why someone’s tidiness would matter, aren’t you? Well, we wouldn’t want to match a dog that has a tendency to hide toys with someone who was less than fastidious or they may never find things they leave laying about.
We also take into consideration the student’s preference. Depending on the amount of residual sight they have, some students prefer a dog that would be a high contrast against their home environment so that they can see them more easily, such as a black dog in a home decorated mainly in shades of beige (although, if you ask me, that’s just asking for more time needed for cleaning).
Some students who are coming to us after having a previous guide typically ask for either a dog just like their previous guide or one that is the polar opposite so that they won’t make comparisons. Bear in mind that the bond between guide dog and handler is extremely strong, so sometimes it may be easier for a handler to transition to a new dog if they are not constantly reminded of their previous guide.
Once the students come to Southeastern Guide Dogs for the 26-day training period, the trainers take them on another Juno walk. This time they are in an unfamiliar environment, so their pace may be a bit slower and more unsure than when they did the same exercise at home. The students also do a test walk with a dog-in-training so that the trainers can get an idea of their handling skills and how comfortable they are correcting and controlling the dogs that are just on a leash walking with them.
After the trainers have observed the students and have spoken with them about their expectations, then the team of trainers meets to discuss who gets matched with whom. Each training team has a number of dogs they have taken through the formal harness training process along with “pass-backs” from the previous class (dogs that were not matched because there wasn’t the perfect person for them) from which to make their matches.
The afternoon of the student’s second day on campus is highly anticipated, as that is when they get to meet their new guide for the first time. Each student is told the name, breed, sex, and color of their dog and then asked to go wait in their room. The students eagerly await the time when the trainer knocks on their door and enters with their new partner.
After introductions are made, the students are given the rest of the afternoon to get to know their dogs and begin the bonding process before the training begins in earnest the next day.
While the majority of matches are spot-on from the start, there is the rare occasion when a dog may have seemed perfect for someone, but as the training progressed, it turned out not to be the case. It could be that as the person got more comfortable, their pace increased and now the dog was too slow for them or any variety of other reasons. In that case, the trainers would reexamine the dogs in their string and find one that would be a better match.
Over the past 30-odd years, Southeastern Guide Dogs has been perfecting the process of matching our world-class guide dogs with their perfect handler and seeing as how more than 2,700 matches have been successfully made, it would appear we have a track record to rival even the best matchmaker.