Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in the U.S., began in 1942 to help wounded servicemen returning from World War II without their sight. An industry leader, Guide Dogs for the Blind has two campuses to serve the blind and visually impaired and has graduated over 12,500 teams.
We sat down with Guide Dogs’ CEO, Christine Benninger, and Vice President of Outreach, Admissions and Alumni Services, Theresa Stern, to discuss the mission of Guide Dogs, what it’s like to have a guide dog, and a message Theresa would like to share about people who are visually impaired.
How would you describe the mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind?
Theresa: The mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind is to allow people the freedom and independence to access the world in any way that they want to.
Christine: It’s about independence through partnership: It's partnership with an amazing dog, with Guide Dogs for the Blind and with the entire community of people who support guide dogs.
Theresa, you’ve had a guide dog for over 20 years. How has working and living with a guide dog been?
Theresa: The reason that I chose to spend my career here at Guide Dogs is because of the incredible difference that a guide dog has made in my life. I've had four guide dogs over the last 20 years, and what's remarkable is how different they have all been; I think that has to do with the training techniques that we use now. We use all positive reinforcement training, so the dogs are super-excited about doing the work that they do. With my current dog, Wills, he's ready to jump in the harness anytime we're ready to go somewhere. So, it's made a huge difference for me having a dog that's so excited to work and loves his job.
New technology has changed how we interact with our environment each day. How have the training techniques evolved to meet this evolution?
Christine: Guide Dogs has been around for over 70 years and a lot has changed since its inception. One of the things that’s different is we now have things like electric cars, which people can't hear like traditional cars. Not only do we train our dogs around the whole concept of the electric car with an onsite Prius, we also train our students how to listen for that unique, but very soft, sound an electric makes.
First Republic helped finance your new student residence. How does that fit into the greater efforts of Guide Dogs serving its community?
Christine: Guide Dogs for the Blind serves the blind and visually impaired all over the United States and Canada. Although we receive no government funding, we’re able to provide a lifetime of support for our graduates. Worldwide, we’re the only school that can support its graduates financially, emotionally and with training over the life of the team. Our beautiful, new student residence would not be here without the help of First Republic.
Theresa: Having this new residence has made a huge impact on Guide Dogs. When people come to get trained with their guide dog, they get to live in a spacious, comfortable, homelike environment. This is important because training with a guide dog can be very stressful. You're not only doing something new, but you're learning to trust this animal with your life. So, having a comfortable place to come home to after training is really important, and this student residence has done that for us.
What is one thing you want people to know about those who are blind or visually impaired?
Theresa: Blind people are just like everybody else. We have our own hopes and dreams, anxieties and ambitions, just like everyone else.