I am so excited to introduce this Friday's Friend, Jenna Bullis, to you not only because we have been friends for several years, but because she is the Breeding Manager for the highly regarded Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California! I've worked down the road from Guide Dogs for over 12 years and I can't believe that it has taken me this long to take a tour of their facility because it is a state of the art program that provides 200-300 certified Guide Dogs to people with visual impairments every year. Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1942 to help serve WWII veterans blinded in the war and continues to serve thousands of people throughout the U.S. and Canada. The program provides visually impaired people the opportunity to be self reliant and to develop a partnership and mutual trust with a dog that will literally be their eyes and their companion for several years.
In order to have those successful relationships everything starts with their breeding program which is where Jenna's years of experience as a Guide Dog trainer, a B.S. degree in psychology and animal behavior, and a dog fancier come together to help her advance the genetic health and temperament of their colony. Jenna and her coworker, Heather Power, walked me through their typical procedure of determining if a bitch in season is ready to be bred. They begin by swabbing for cells to determine when her proestrus cycle begins so they can track when the progesterone starts to rise enough indicating the start of the next stage, estrus. Estrus happens when estrogen levels are high and mature eggs are released into the ovaries. The slides in the second picture shows a selection of dogs that they are currently tracking for breeding this month, and the fourth picture shows a vaginal cytology slide that Heather uses to determine where the dog is in her cycle. In the fifth picture Dr. Kris Gonzales, their board certified small animal reproductive specialist, is prepping Monet for an ultrasound to check on her five puppies which are due in a few weeks. Picture six shows the scull of one of her puppies that was very active and surprising us with yawns and lots of movement! If you look closely at the upper portion of picture seven you can see the spine of another one of Monet's puppies. The last picture is a live webcam of a mother and her puppies so the staff can keep an eye on the litters without disturbing the mothers or introducing outside bacteria and viruses which could compromise the puppies health.
(A sweet Golden Retriever, left, waiting for evaluation, and Amici, right, is an active stud dog currently used in the program)
So what does it take for a dog to become a breeder for Guide Dogs? Currently 95% of all the dogs produced for the program are bred from their own colony, with the other 5% resulting from co-breedings with other organizations to help keep the gene pool diverse and healthy. The main factors in stock selection are health and temperament. Healthy dogs provide healthier offspring and sound temperaments can be passed on through the generations. Each individual dog is reviewed, along with their littermates, sire, and dam to evaluate their health and temperament for future production. Surprisingly to me, even the coat is a strong factor due to a graduate's individual color preference, the flexibility of a double coat to work in different temperature environments, and the general ease of grooming. Volunteer Breeding stock custodians take care of the dogs and maintain their health and day to day care.
At 8 weeks old the puppies are placed with volunteer puppy raisers to learn good manners and social skills. Once the puppies are between 12-14 months they are brought back in for testing to evaluate their hips, elbows, eyes, heart, and if chosen their semen, DNA genotype, and further hip and joint radiographs. So ultimately only the best of the best enter the breeding program and Jenna determines which dogs get the golden ticket. Currently the colony consists of 200 active breeders and is comprised of approximately 80% Labrador Retrievers, 10% Golden Retrievers, and 10% Labrador and Golden crosses. Both of these breeds provide the working drive, intelligence, and temperaments that are needed to enter either the breeding stock or the high level of training necessary to become a Guide Dog.
If you live or work in Marin you may have seen the trainers out in public working their dogs, but if you come across a person who is blind with their dog how should you interact with the team? Jenna gave me some etiquette tips to share:
- Say "hi" and introduce yourself to the person before petting or distracting their dog. As tempting as it is, remember that the dog is working and the person's safety depends on their concentration.
- Never offer food or treats. A Guide Dog is trained to visit restaurants without begging and is on a feeding schedule of a specific diet.
- Technology and cities have become more complicated (quieter cars and more pedestrians) so do not call out to a Guide Dog, intentionally obstruct its path, or honk your horn to signal that it is safe to cross the road.
- If you feel someone needs assistance or is about to enter a dangerous situation, ask or voice your concern and speak directly to the person, not their dog.
- Guide Dogs are allowed to be "off-duty" to play and run around, but if you see a dog without its harness on do not offer it toys without asking for the handler's permission for the safety of the dog.
Guide Dogs for the Blind relies solely on generous donations and thousands of volunteers each year. They receive no government funding. There are several ways that you can help this wonderful program and I encourage you to learn more about their volunteer opportunities and ways that you can help provide a sustainable future. Join in on upcoming graduation ceremonies to see the results of all their hard work!
(Jenna and her Portuguese Water Dog, Jagger. You can see more of them on their Fluffy Bunny Studios videos on You-Tube!)
I really want to thank Jenna and her staff for taking the time to talk to me and educate me on the intricacies of their breeding program and allowing me to tour the campus! You can learn more about Guide Dogs and how they are trained on their Guidedogsaregreat You-Tube page, their website, and on Facebook.