Guide dogs for blind puppies train at SLO airport
Travelers at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport this Memorial Day weekend may have seen a group of “well-behaved” training puppies going through their TSA security checks and boarding a plane.
It is thanks to the local branch of Guide dogs for the blind — a group that raises puppies and prepares them for extensive training to become guide dogs for people with visual impairments. This is their 80th year doing so.
The group partners with Alaska Airlines to familiarize their pups with the busy airport environment in a training exercise. Guide dogs must undergo “rigorous training” before taking their first real flight, according to the organization.
The group included the San Luis Obispo chapter, as well as students from Cal Poly’s Guide Dogs for the Blind club. Currently, there are about seven puppies in training in the county.
Guide Dogs for the Blind obtains dogs at 8 weeks of age and keeps them until they are 15 to 19 months old, depending on the maturity of the dog. Puppy raisers teach basic obedience like house manners and socialization.
This involves taking the dogs wherever they go – be it to the movies, to the restaurant or, for puppy-raising students, to the classroom and on campus.
“It’s kind of like we had them from kindergarten through high school,” said Susan King, club manager and puppy raiser.
Then the dogs work with licensed professional trainers and officially become guides – for free.
“Wherever we take them, it makes people smile,” King said. “People start smiling when they see a dog in an unexpected place.”
Shortly after, King shows a smiling woman, as the puppies are led from security to their door.
The last time the puppies did the training exercise at the airport was four or five years ago. The exercise is usually carried out every two years, but has been suspended even longer due to the pandemic.
Alaska Airlines manager Josh Wishmeyer has worked at SLO Airport for about a year now, so this was his first time leading the group.
“I haven’t had a lot of amazing moments as a manager yet, but this is number one now,” Wishmeyer said.
For Wishmeyer, it was a “great experience” to be able to help the puppies become successful guide dogs. He says the puppies in training will bring people happiness, while helping them in everyday life.
“I’m thrilled for whoever they’re going to help in the future,” Wishmeyer said. “The training they’ve had and seeing them really well for the first time at the airport is amazing.”
Alaska Airlines provided a basket of treats for the puppies and their handlers, including an Alaska Airlines wine glass, a portable dog bowl and treats from the Tails pet store in San Luis Obispo.
When boarding, the handlers walked across the line with their dogs by their side and practiced sitting with them in an empty Alaska Airlines plane.
Meanwhile, the plane’s crew waited for the training exercise to be over before boarding the passengers for their real flight.
Ideally, dogs sit under the airplane seat or in front of its owner’s legs. One dog opted for his own seat instead, as if to say, “I put my seat belt on now? says a manager.
Jenna Reimer, a fourth-year psychology student at Cal Poly, is raising her sixth dog through the Guide Dogs for the Blind student club. As a club leader, she helps monitor the dogs’ progress and offers assistance to handlers who may be having difficulty with their training.
The dogs stay with puppy handlers 24/7, though Reimer says the club makes co-breeders and dog sitters if a dog handler isn’t available at certain times. Off-airport training includes body handling exercise to make the dog feel comfortable being held and wearing vests or other gear.
From the Cal Poly campus to the airport, dogs can experience varying levels of distraction, Reimer said.
“Some dogs are really, really excited about the world,” Reimer said. “We just want to allow them to see it and experience it, but also to learn how to pick it up and keep working.”
Reimer, who plans to do dog training after graduation, recalled a success she had with a dog through another program called Buddy K9 For the young. Her puppy has become the “companion” of an 8-year-old visually impaired girl.
“The family tells me how it’s like the highlight of her day coming home – she’s like, ‘Where’s Henderson? ‘” Reimer said. “So that’s really cool. It’s really touching to see the partnerships and how amazing the dogs are.
After the training exercise, Reimer said the dogs’ outing at the airport was a success.
“It was a really big and fun environment, and I didn’t see any of the dogs engage in any behaviors that I’m concerned about,” Reimer said. “I think we have a really good group of dogs right now and I’m really confident they’re going to be successful.”