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Visual Disabilities program students try serving as guide dog leaders – and dogs

May 27, 2019
Students practice being the dog leader – and the dog.

Visitors to Graham Hall, whether inside or outside, are familiar with the site of students wearing sleep-shade blindfolds and navigating hallways, stairwells and sidewalks with white canes.

For two days each year, however, those canes are replaced with human beings – playing the role of guide dogs.

Lukas Franck and Chelsea White, field representatives of the Morristown, N.J.-based The Seeing Eye, make an annual trip to the NIU College of Education in April to provide graduate students in the Visual Disabilities program with first-hand knowledge and experience of how to work with learners whose primary mobility system is the guide dog.

William Penrod, an associate professor in the Department of Special and Early Education, includes the Seeing Eye visit as part of his SEVI 570: Advanced Orientation and Mobility class.

During the first day of the training, students explored the history of cane- and dog-based mobility, learned the basics of guide dog mobility, heard a personal mobility story from White and paired up to travel to a designated destination with white canes,

The second day brought the more interesting exercise with humans serving as dogs.

“Our candidates are allowed to participate in a ‘Juno’ walk, where the blindfolded learner is led by the trainer using a specially designed harness allowing the trainer to ascertain whether the learner would need a faster or slower dog guide with compatible size and temperament,” says Penrod, a longtime advocate of Seeing Eye and Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Leader Dog.

“In real life,” he says, “these ‘Juno’ walks help ensure that the learner and dog guide are compatible, as dog guide units cost approximately $50,000 to train.”

Seeing Eye, Leader Dog “and almost all other reputable dog guide institutions use selective breeding and regimented training starting off with the puppy being placed in a volunteer family for the first year of its life,” he adds. “This is done to ensure that the dog guide is properly socialized prior to being returned to The Seeing Eye for its advanced training.”

An estimated 5 percent of individuals who are legally blind use guide dogs for mobility, Penrod says.

Mobility systems also include human guides, white canes and Electronic Travel Aids (ETAs), the latter of which is also a part of the NIU’s Visual Disabilities preparation.

People who want guide dogs must provide recommendations from their Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialists – the job title of many of Penrod’s graduates and, eventually, his current students.

Learning the ropes of that assessment responsibility – and of assisting people who use guide dogs – while still in school gives them a professional advantage, he says.

Lukas Franck and Chelsea White
Lukas Franck and Chelsea White

“They know what the attributes are of a successful guide dog handler – the person using the guide dog – and then they can weigh that against the person’s general O&M skills,” Penrod says.

“You cannot be an expert guide dog handler without having good O&M skills. For example, it could be too physically challenging to use a guide dog,” he adds. “Orientation and Mobility is not only a cognitive process but also a psychomotor process, and you have to know the physical and mental characteristics of a person’s behavior.”

Penrod’s students appreciate the workshop: “They love it,” he says. “Every last one of them gives it really high marks.”