BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit that strives to give visually impaired people independence. Usually clients work with their guide dogs in-person, but the current need for social distancing has prompted new ways of training.
“We’re creating a gift for someone down the road to help someone who is visually impaired," said puppy raiser Nicola Wright.
Wright is currently raising a Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy for the third time with her fourteen-year-old daughter Caitlyn, but this training looks different from her previous puppies.
"They got a lot more experience [doing] regular activities. We have been home a lot," Wright said.
Puppy raisers work with their dogs on basic skills for about a year before they are sent to a Guide Dogs for the Blind campus to meet and train with their future owners. With social distancing in effect, however, it is harder to socialize the puppies without crowded, public settings.
“Not having that face-to-face affects the puppies more," said Wright. "We’re just a little limited where we can take her, but we have been taking her out on short trips so she has the experience.”
When the pandemic hit, the organization could no longer train visually-impaired clients with their guide dogs in person, but there were nearly 1,200 dogs that needed to be cared for.
“I get teary-eyed about all that because [it’s] hard," said Guide Dogs for the Blind president and CEO Christine Benninger.
Benninger says puppy raisers like Wright took in those dogs despite not knowing how long they would have to keep them.
“Our puppy raisers really stepped up to the plate. They’ve been caring for all those dogs during all this," said Benninger.
The organization has been working with clients virtually the past four months, preparing them for eventual in-person training. Right now, local clients are able to visit the campus for some training with face masks and social distancing enforced.
“We all work at Guide Dogs because we really believe in the mission, and it’s wonderful to be able to see that mission coming back to life again," said Benninger.
Despite these changes the nonprofit has made, Benninger says the dogs and their trainers have remained resilient.
“What is utterly amazing is that our dogs did maintain their skills, and so what our instructors are saying is that, you know, it’s like our dogs never left," said Benninger.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is accepting donations through its website.