Sharing The Love: Guide Dogs And ‘Career Changers’

Ember in training. Photo courtesy of Tina and Ron Thompson. 
7:30am | We once met a lovely, noble-countenanced German shepherd breakfasting with her human companion in an outdoor café. Naturally, whenever we meet a dog, especially a purebred, we ask the owner where he or she got the animal. We of course hope to hear shelter or rescue, breed specific or otherwise, but the answer we got here was unexpected: “Oh! She’s a guide-dog flunkout.”

“No! Not!” Jim Ostach retorted in horror when we told him the story. Ostach is a retired Long Beach City College speech professor who has trained guide dog puppies with Guide Dogs for the Blind for a few decades and shares his life with Trevino, a glossy-furred black lab who was at the time taking a break in the garden. Ostach told us that dogs who don’t make it through graduation as guide dogs or helper dogs are called “career changers” and are decidedly not flunkouts. Dogs like Trevino, he said, can still have rich and satisfying careers as therapy/hospital-visitation dogs, as participants in programs such as Beach Animals Reading with Kids (BARK) that uses reading to dogs to lower children’s stress about reading, and as well-behaved, well-trained family members. Trevino himself plans to be an assistant trainer to future canine students after Ostach recovers from knee surgery and is able to educate his next puppy.

Trevino joined Ostach when the family that was training the dog returned him to the school. Trevino had been hesitant in responding to commands and didn’t have the focus needed to make it as a guide dog. The puppy-raiser didn’t want another full-time pet, and Ostach did. He’d adopted a couple of training retirees through the years, and there was room in his home and heart for the next one.

Team Ostach: Jim and Trevino.

There are a number of reasons why puppies or older dogs don’t make it to the Ivy League either during or after their training. Ostach and Tina Thompson, another dedicated Long Beach puppy trainer who volunteers with Guide Dogs of America (GDA) raising pups who will be companions of the blind and hearing impaired, cite stress, health issues, or fear.

“There are some puppies that come across an aggressive dog when they go out for a walk,” Thompson said. “In the report [to the organization], we have to record this. They’d still take them [into advanced training] and they might recover, but over time, if they don’t, the trainers notice. We can’t have a dog working with a blind person and refusing to go out the front door. Some dogs also don’t accustom themselves to the harness, or there may be a skin rash—a few things.”

Ember, a former student of Thompson’s, was discovered to have a skin condition after she graduated puppy kindergarten and went to college. As with Trevino, the Thompsons were lucky enough to be offered Ember as a pet. The skin condition is now under control.

Opportunity Wags

The idea of having a pet that has been already better trained than most children, especially regarding toileting, is certainly appealing, but before you hare off to the Search engine and look up guide-dog-training schools, be aware that there aren’t vast numbers of puppies pining for homes the way they are in shelters and rescues. You can apply for one, but there’s anywhere from a five- to seven-year waiting list, and the dog must be spayed or neutered if it hasn’t been already. Furthermore, the puppy raiser gets first refusal, and the dog is then offered to another volunteer puppy raiser if the dog’s “teacher” chooses not to adopt them.

There is another option—you can foster and house a breeder dog. Guide dog organizations all have special breeders who breed guide dogs from certain lines. The dogs wear jackets that identify them as breeders—much like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter—and an individual may keep the dog at home until the female is in heat or when a male is needed for breeding. There’s no danger of backyard breeding, as the dogs are carefully monitored. The trainer also must apply for a special assistance tag from Animal Care Services which must be updated whenever a new trainee or breeding dog comes into the home, as many of the training dogs may also be considered as breeding dogs later.

During the time that the dog is a puppy breeder, he or she belongs to the organization, not the foster. If you decide at any time that you no longer want to participate in the fostering, the dog must be returned to the organization. There’s an internal breeding monitor who keeps an eye on the breeding lines; if a line no longer works, all adult breeders and offspring are spayed or neutered, discontinuing the line. Happily, no dog ever is euthanized, whether a former breeder or a retired guide dog. Retired guide dogs and breeders live out their days in happiness at the doggie farm, unless they become part of a human family.

Then, of course, you can do what Thompson and her husband, Ron, did—become a volunteer puppy raiser. In 2002, the Thompsons were in fact seeking a pet and wanted to raise him or her from puppyhood.

“We’d narrowed down the breeds to shepherds, labs and retrievers—a medium or large dog,” Thompson said. “We started researching and went to Pet Expo in Orange County. GDA had a booth. We’d never thought of raising a guide dog, and the breeds were the exact breeds we had narrowed down to. And, you get to raise it from a puppy!”

Guide dogs, said Thompson, are traditionally medium or large breeds, as taller breeds are needed to walk next to a blind person. Temperament is a strong factor as well—a Jack Russell terrier wouldn’t be suitable in any case. German shepherds were first used to guide blind military veterans after World War I, but the breed is traditionally protective of only one person. Labs and retrievers are social and can transition and adapt to owners and handlers more easily. When the guide dog organizations match dogs with humans, they will choose a smaller lab for a shorter person and a higher-energy dog for someone on the go. Thompson said that breeders are currently trying to cross standard poodles with labs to alleviate allergens for people who are sensitive.

The Thompsons attended their first open house at GDA’s central location in Sylmar—GDB is in San Rafael, where Ostach’s pupils come from—and saw the full range of what they could become involved with, from preschool to graduation and all the way to a career that would be rewarding for everyone. They filled out the application and waited around 10 months for evaluation of their backgrounds and dependability. It was worth it.

“We got our first puppy in 2003,” Thompson said, with the fond smile of a mother recalling her firstborn who wound up at Cornell.
Teacher’s Pet

Thompson and Ostach both go to local training groups and receive what could best be described as a strict, structured curriculum—Ostach maintains all his lessons in a thick loose-leaf notebook, which also doubles as a yearbook with photos of his graduates. Thompson’s group, South Bay Puppy Raising, is overseen by Brian and Nancy Matthews and meets monthly at the Christ Lutheran Church on Stearns Street. The meetings include a chat session and techniques, and the trainers receive and are guided through their lessons, most of which parallel the ones from Ostach’s group. Lessons have been developed in building trust, coming when their name is called, adjusting to the leash and harness, sitting and waiting for dinner, and relieving themselves. Thompson said that the dog must be directed to eliminate only in the place that he or she is directed to; both Ember and Ostach’s Trevino have their own place in the yard.

These kindergarten babies would love to stick their heads in gravy: Puppy trainers and their pupils at class. Photo courtesy of Brian Matthews.

Frequent breaks are encouraged because the dog has a limited attention span—sort of like a kindergartener. Between that and “relieve,” the comparison is strong.

“Having never had a dog before or trained one, we found that the dog trains you,” Thompson said. “We get puppies from 7 or 8 weeks old. We focus on building trust, and the puppy understands that you are in a sense the alpha dog—leader of the pack. We’ve seen that play out as they get older—the dog gets in a situation and looks to us for help. We are also taught how puppies think. They don’t understand our language, but they do get the idea of patterns—I get my keys, we’re going in the car, I get the leash, we’re walking. Dad’s sleeping in, it’s Saturday, and we’re going to do something. There is a skill to training them. It takes so much patience and conscious effort and attention”

If there’s another dog, a cat or a child in the trainer’s home, so much the better, Thompson said. The dog will become used to them and can be more easily trained not to zip off after a strange animal or befriend a child while working. When the dog has learned to resist distractions, he or she is dressed in the little training jacket and taken around town, to Disneyland, the grocery store, a restaurant, or a movie. While out and about, both dog and trainer will be used to resisting advances from dog lovers like you and us.

“The dog’s working,” Ostach said. “People of course want to approach and pet the animal, but they have to be told—in a friendly way, of course—that the dog can’t be distracted from the job.”

Proud graduate—yellow lab/golden retriever mix. Courtesy of Brian Matthews

"We’ll Remember Always: Graduation Day…
After about two years of training, the dog that you’ve spent so much meaningful time with and have undoubtedly come to love is ready to pack up the saddlebag and ship out for professional training at guide dog school, and it’s really good-bye forever, unless you glimpse them as guest speakers with their handicapped human companion at another puppy-graduation ceremony. Puppy-school graduations are probably more emotion packed than the human version.

“There are around four graduations a year,” Thompson said. “We attend them all, even when our guide dogs aren’t involved. When we see a team graduated, we know—this is why we do it. Human partners come, and each tells a story—from ‘I haven’t run into a rosebush since I got my dog’ all the way to ‘I wasn’t hit by a car two months ago because I gave my dog the forward comment and he still wouldn’t go.’ We take our dog to the kennels and we say our last goodbyes. Then, we fall apart.”

The Thompsons—Ron, Tina and Ember the yellow lab—bid good luck and Godspeed to the puppy kindergarten grads. Photo courtesy of Tina and Ron Thompson.

If puppy raising sounds like a ball and you want to go fetch, remember that it takes a certain frame of mind and heart to become a trainer. We’ve stressed that the dogs don’t belong to you unless you’ve adopted a career changer. But if you feel that you can keep an eye to the greater goal of helping someone, both Thompson and Ostach say that there’s great need for puppy raisers. And, whether a dog is a prestigious graduate helping a disabled person or a career changer happily listening to a child read, there’s one common link among all the possible careers. Just ask Tina Thompson.

“Ember has a job, too,” she told us. “She brings us joy.”

Photo courtesy of Guide Dogs of America.

To learn about puppy training or donating, contact GDA or GDB. If you want a well-trained dog but cannot or will not wait an even longer time than it used to take to get a custom MINI Cooper, visit our shelter at the Pitchford Companion Animal Village or one of our many wonderful rescues and take them to one of the behavior classes that Long Beach Parks and Rec sponsors. Jim Ostach says that they’re excellent.

“With my guide dog, I’m no longer finding obstacles—as far as we’re concerned, there are no obstacles.”
Quote from a companion human on the Guide Dogs for the Blind Web site

Virtually Pets
All dogs below are perfectly capable of being (qualifiedly speaking) well behaved like Trevino and Ember. Sit. Stay. Adopt.

Lovely Lola needs a home. She was rescued by some LBFD employees after they found her roaming the streets. Shes's about a year old, and a very sweet and docile pit/lab mix. She is very good with children and other dogs and really gets along with everyone. She knows a few commands:  sit, stay, come, and gentle (when she is given a treat, she won't snatch it out of your hand). She isn't much into games or fetch but will engage when prompted. Her foster family has four small children, and she is very good with all of them—she does not jump or knock them over. She plays well with the neighbor dogs. She would really love to be part of a family where she is treated with lots of love—she has lots to give back! She has been spayed and has had her shots. E-mail  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to come get Lola!


Silly name, but so what? Fatsho is a little over 2 years old. Remember what we said about German shepherds—they’re loyal until the end. Too bad that Fatsho’s original family wasn’t. He deserves better. Go see him at ACS at 7700 E. Spring St. in Long Beach. Ask for ID#A270199.

Pet Projects
2011 Open House at Animal Care Services, January 22, 10:00am to 12:00pm
Outstanding accomplishments of local organizations and residents will be recognized at this year’s Open House. Residents and guests will be provided with a report card on the past year as well as an overview of new programs and technologies available to residents in 2011; everyone will have an opportunity to comment. Refreshments will be served, and tours will be conducted. Information on animal adoption, dog licensing, spay and neuter programs, and other animal-care information will be available. Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal will host. The animal shelter is located at 7700 E. Spring St. in Long Beach.

OCPA Stages More Lobster Zone Protests

In October, Orange County People for Animals (OCPA) waged a successful protest against a couple of restaurants in Long Beach that housed the Lobster Zone, a mean-spirited game that has the player—kids included—hoisting up a lobster from a tank and dropping it down a chute to its boiling death. OCPA felt that this was inhumane and that it was going too far, whether you’re a vegan or a carnivore. We did, too. Late last year, the group held another protest, this time against Wardlow Station, which had (and still has) a Lobster Zone. Despite catcalls from the customers and the refusal of the management to remove the game, OCPA staged another protest a few days later. No success as yet, but they hope that the bar’s owners will come to the realization of the cruelty of the game and remove it. Till then, they’re at it hammer and claw.

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