David had seen the danger and stopped cold to alert Schley, the 57-year-old owner of Bill’s Eatery Vending Co., preventing him from being killed by a reckless driver.
Schley’s story is just one example of the challenges and triumphs that form the strong bonds between guide dogs and their owners.
“They (the dogs) are like children, because we tend to anthropomorphize them, we see them as our children,” Schley said of mourning David’s death. “When I had to put David down I was close to a nervous breakdown. It was like losing a child.”
Guide dogs help blind and visually impaired people in northern Nevada live active and mobile lives, but it takes years of training to make a good guide dog.
Schley and his current dog, Benny, an 11-year-old English Labrador retriever, work as a team to navigate the streets of Reno. Benny is trained to respond to up to 80 verbal and touch commands, Schley said.
The process of guide dog training starts with a puppy selected by one of the 11 nonprofit guide dog schools in the United States, Schley said.
Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or German shepherds are usually the preferred breeds, Schley said.
Candidates for guide dog service must be friendly, gentle, malleable and conscious of their surroundings, said Schley, who lost his sight to diabetes-related complications 30 years ago.
The first stage is called “puppy raising,” in which a guide dog school gives an 8-week-old candidate puppy to a trained volunteer for basic dog training in preparation for more intensive training, according to Dana Pardee, a member of the Carson City Guide Dog Club (CCGDC).
“Basically, we are in charge of their socializing and basic obedience,” said Pardee, a community health services student at the University of Nevada, Reno. “One of the most important issues we deal with is making sure the dog can manage with all of the distractions out there.”
Pardee attended 10 weeks of meetings and had a home evaluation to qualify as a puppy raiser. Currently, she is co-raising Franco, a 1-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, whom Pardee takes to as many public places as possible to acclimate him to busy and loud spaces.
At the end of a 12- to 14-month period, successful candidates graduate puppy training and go on to guide dog school.
Dogs that do not qualify either are adopted to the puppy trainers or a family, according to the website of Guide Dogs For The Blind, the San Raphael, Calif.-based school that partners with CCGDC.
Giving the dogs back to the school isn’t easy, Pardee said.
“Yes it is (difficult),” Pardee said. “Getting asked if giving the dog back is hard is the question I get the most. But I just try and remember what I’m raising the dog for and why I’m doing it.”
At the guide dog school, the dog begins an intensive two- to three-month training program, according to the Guide Dogs For The Blind website. During the last month the dog trains with the blind person to whom it has been matched, according to the website.
Schley struggled with accessing public spaces with his dog when he moved to Reno in 1983, he said. Restaurants and businesses often wouldn’t let him bring his dog into their facilities.
But since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates accommodations for guide dogs, Schley said this happens less often.
“I used to get challenged by people a lot,” Schley said. “But now I think it’s been a long time since I’ve had a problem with the dog.”
Schley said Benny is now ending his working years and will be retired next fall. He plans to find another dog to train, but will keep Benny as a pet.
“I got him when he was 2 years old and that was eight or nine years ago,” Schley said. “He still has a lot of spunk and loves to get in the harness, but his eyes and hearing are not what they used to be.”