A dog can be many things to its owner — companion, friend, protector, child — but perhaps a dog’s most responsible and nurturing role is to be someone’s eyes.
Being a guide dog for the blind is a big job, a dream come true for some dogs. Every year, nearly 1,000 puppies are placed in homes to take the first step toward becoming a guide.
It’s a tough job for the trainer as well as the puppy. They welcome a little stranger into their home, raise them to their fullest potential, then send them off to “college” 14 to 16 months later. From there, the dogs will go live with a new family.
It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and Bonnie Finsthwait of Chicago Park has been doing it for 29 years. She recently finished raising her 24th guide dog for the blind and is currently training her 25th, Nigel.
“Our youngest child was 11 when he asked me if I could help him raise a dog for the blind. So we did. We raised our first one together, then he went on to play football and be busy, but I continued,” she said.
At the time, Finsthwait lived near San Rafael, where Guide Dogs for the Blind has one of two campuses (the other is in Oregon). Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1942 and initially trained dogs to assist wounded soldiers. It’s one of the most prominent organizations of its kind.
The program uses yellow and black labs and golden retrievers. At eight weeks old they are sent to live in a home and start puppy training.
They immediately put on their service jacket, which they wear everywhere they go. Over the next year to year and a half, Finsthwait teaches them basic obedience and provides daily exercise and socialization.
Her socialization includes exposing the puppies to environments most people take for granted. She gets them comfortable with public restrooms, various modes of transportation and visits high-traffic areas like malls, casinos, grocery stores and events like Cornish Christmas.
“Our goal is to get them to official training, and it’s a 24-7 responsibility,” she said.
Finsthwait does have some help. She’s the leader of Auburn Foothills Guiding Eyes, which consists of seven puppy raisers, three dog-sitters and three volunteers.
The group meets three times a month, and once a year, they travel to San Francisco, where they take the ferry and a trolley to Pier 39. This weekend, the group and its canine counterparts will take part in a parade in Wheatland.
“I’m very fortunate to live on a ranch with llamas, goats and horses, so my dogs get used to that very early. They’re pretty bomb-proof by the time they get done.”
Finsthwait and her group are always looking for trainers, and no special qualification or pre-training is required.
“We have some trainers start when they’re 9 years old. We have families with as many as seven kids raising two puppies, and we have a retired couple,” she said. “You have to love dogs, have a lot of patience and the willingness to give a lot of time then give this goodwill to someone else.”
Of the 24 dogs Finsthwait has raised, 17 have gone on to be guides for the blind.
Those who don’t successfully make it through two to four months of official training in San Rafael and get matched with a visually impaired owner are “career changed.”
This can mean a life in search and rescue, a guide for the hearing impaired or diabetics, or in some cases, they go on to be a breeder (a very high honor). Overall, approximately 65 percent of the puppies that are sent to raisers make it to graduation.
Finsthwait does it all out of the goodness of her heart. The only reimbursement is for medical expenses, collars and puppy jackets. She’s responsible for food, toys and an immeasurable amount of love and patience.
Sometimes though, it all comes full circle. In addition to Nigel, she recently welcomed back Morton, whom she trained 11 years ago and who is spending his leisurely retirement keeping the new pup in line and wandering the ranch. But it will still sting when Nigel heads back to school for official training next year.
“It’s always hard. It’s always that time of taking them back to the campus and saying goodbye. They’re going to be somebody else’s eyes, and that’s important. I still cry when I take them back. It’s a loving sacrifice,” Finsthwait said.
For information, go to http://auburnfoothillsguides.com.
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.