Forever Changed: A Day with Guide Dogs for the Blind
- Erin Swanson
Piled into a Ruffwear van, Greg and Grant drove through the gates of the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus – a pristine 11-acre campus nestled in the charming Northern California town of San Rafael.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Director of Marketing greeted them at the entrance. They’d only expected a quick 30-minute stop to say hello. But to their surprise, she ushered them through a full campus tour and immersive experience.
The warm summer breeze pressed at their backs as they walked on paths winding through manicured lawns. Modern buildings with touches of wood paneling sat on the perimeter – with signs pointing to the maternity ward, puppy development center, kennels, training facilities, and dormitories for people who are blind attending training.
Greg particularly enjoyed stopping at the puppy kennels. Dressed in a smock to protect the puppies from germs, he picked up a smiling young golden retriever. This little one would one day play a transformative role in the life of a person who is blind.
Make Way for Puppies in Training
Next, they explored the Puppy Development Center. Mobiles of PVC pipe and dangling spatulas hung over the puppies – who learned to ignore their jarring sounds. The pups-in-training explored novel surfaces as they balanced on wobble boards and trotted over bumpy obstacles.
They even faced a dog’s arch nemesis – the dreaded vacuum. At the completion of this training, the puppies would be able to stay calm and professional in distracting environments.
A Walk Without Sight
After soaking up some puppy time, Greg and Grant walked to an open courtyard. They stood, surrounded by mature oak trees, on a training path for those who are blind learning to walk with a guide dog. Little did Greg know, he was in for a life-changing experience.
GDB trainers instructed Greg to put on a blindfold and walk with a highly-trained guide dog in a harness. When he first met the blonde lab he’d be putting his trust in, he noticed how playful she was. She greeted Greg with high-speed tail swooshes. Wiggling her rump in excitement, her tongue hung sideways from her grinning mouth.
But once that harness was on, she stood still – body poised for instruction, ears forward, and eyes focused.
As Greg put on the blindfold, grabbed the harness handle, and began to follow the lab’s lead, he was struck by how much movement and feedback he felt from the handle.
He had thought he’d just hold on and walk forward. But instead, he noticed the handle rotated from side to side. It turns out, this handle movement is an intentional part of its design – it creates a full connection to the guide dog.
Greg had one of those rare “aha” moments. He got just a glimpse of what it’s like to not be able to rely on his sight and discovered a newfound appreciation for guide dogs.
Dog Boots 101
Still blindfolded, Greg then attempted to put Ruffwear boots on a guide dog. Now, this wasn’t Greg’s first rodeo putting on dog boots – he figured he’d put on more than most people at Ruffwear. But, the process felt brand new without his sight.
Greg fiddled with the bag, opened it, and let the boots spill out. He patted the ground to find them – picking one up with care. Waving his free hand into the air, he made contact with the dog’s soft back, moving his way down to her legs. Next, he felt around with his other hand to locate the bottom surface of the boot. His hand grazed its rugged outsole. Sliding his fingers to the top, he felt the upper mesh material.
He opened the boot wide, lifted the paw, and made a few awkward attempts to place it in the boot. Missed. Oops – missed again. The dog, trained in how to wear dog boots, stood still and patient.
Finally, Greg managed to slip the paw inside the boot. It took a few attempts to find the top of the boot, cinch it tight, and fasten the hook-and-loop closure. Greg exhaled in triumph. As he tried to locate the other boots, he thought: Whew, three more boots to go.
It was then that Greg had an epiphany – a flash of clarity washed over him. A pivotal turning point. He thought, I’ve never experienced our products like this before. We can alter them to better suit the needs of people who are blind.
He’d changed his perception permanently and there was no turning back.
As Greg and Grant’s afternoon on the campus came to a close, they were hesitant to leave. Greg thought, this has been one of the most influential work days I’ve ever had. Lucky for Greg, he’d be back.
Fueling Our Commitment to Guide Dogs
This immersive afternoon sparked a fire in Greg – driving him forward with a steadfast commitment to build more partnerships between Ruffwear and working dog communities. He began attending conferences, reaching out to organizations, and educating himself.
In 2017, Greg switched from his role as Brand Manager to Ruffwear’s first Service Dog Channel Manager. Soon, our influence in the working dog industry would span from service dogs and guide dogs to avalanche dogs and conservation dogs.
During this time, we connected with more guide dog organizations and worked with them to design the Unifly™ Guide Dog Harness, Access ID™ Service Dog Vest, and Audible Beacon™ Safety Light. Our dog boots and treat pouches also support this community. Today, we supply gear to guide dogs across the world.
As we provide ongoing support for this community, we continue to learn from and be inspired by the remarkable individuals and dogs involved in this work.
Greg puts it best: “I never get tired of watching working dogs work. Whatever the job is, whatever they are doing, it is amazing to me.”
Hungry for more stories about working dogs? Satisfy your appetite with our full spread of working dog stories.
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