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November 28, 2006 > Guide school dropout is head of the class

Guide school dropout is head of the class

by Janet Grant

For the blind, guide dogs can make the difference in functioning independently in a world of sight. But what happens to the highly specialized canines that don’t complete their training? For Gillespie-nicknamed Gilly-dropping out of guide school meant a chance to serve the disabled community in a different way. This gentle and intelligent yellow Labrador retriever is part of a pilot program conducted by Fremont’s California School for the Blind (CSB). His task? Gilly introduces the responsibilities of dog ownership to those students thinking of getting a guide dog.

The program is the brain-child of Marcia Vickroy, an Orientation and Mobility instructor at CSB. Vickroy knew that just about every one of her students wanted a guide dog but discovered none of them knew how to care for one. In May 2005, she submitted a grant proposal to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, seeking one of their dogs. With a waiting list running from two to five years, Vickroy was surprised to get Gilly a mere three months later. Guide Dogs for the Blind liked Vickroy’s idea for one simple reason; about 25 percent of their clients drop out because they have no idea of the responsibilities of dog ownership. Maybe a program like hers would help reduce that percentage.

It wasn’t a lack of intelligence that prevented Gilly’s graduation. Rather, it was his soft trachea that would not accommodate a guide dog harness. Instead, he became what is known as a “career change” dog. Career change dogs are those released from programs due to either health or behavior issues. Some become pets, but because of their high degree of training have been placed with organizations that can train them for other critical tasks such as search and rescue, cancer detection, or assistance with the hearing-impaired. Guide Dog’s for the Blind believed Gilly to have the perfect temperament for Marcia’s program.

Gilly lives with Vickroy and her supportive family. She first introduced him to the sights and sounds of the school by bringing him every day to her CSB office. Initially, he had very little interaction with students but quickly bonded to the other five Orientation and Mobility instructors. Enthusiastically supported by her entire department, Vickroy is now assisted with the program by two Orientation and Mobility instructors.

Paws for Cause 101 is a curriculum specially built around Gilly. Vickroy currently has 12 students who learn and practice skills in the areas of responsibility, time management and planning, concept development, communication, organization, and fine and gross motor skills. Students use a daily checklist and their lesson plans include walking, feeding, communicating with a vet, measuring the proper amount of food, and even baking doggie cookies. Class activities are designed for fun, but the experiences support students in much more important ways. Caring for Gilly teaches them about themselves and their personal capabilities.
Gilly is not the only dog on campus, but his special gift is patience and an ability to adapt to the needs and styles of many people. He readily adapts to students who have different challenges such as awkward gait patterns, the inability to give voice commands, and even a fear of dogs. He has risen to each challenge with gentle fortitude. Vickroy talks about a student who was so afraid of Gilly, she wanted nothing to do with him for a year. The student was never forced to do anything with him, but on her own she got closer and closer. Finally one day, the girl simply went over to Gilly and laid her head on him. The Lab calmly and gladly accepted a new friend in a moment that brought a tear to every eye in the room.
Vickroy is both amazed and educated by the ways her students adapt to their circumstances. Gilly’s rapid placement forced her to adapt as well, since she had no experience in training dogs or how to train others to work with dogs. “Quite frankly,” she says, “we are flying by the seat of our pants.” Vickroy expected it would take at least a year to get a dog so she thought there would be plenty of time to learn and get things ready. His rapid arrival forced all involved to quickly learn how to deal with things like what to do if a student can’t give voice commands.  How do you keep Gilly from doing something he shouldn’t? Gilly’s instincts and training enable him to respond appropriately to these challenges. As if born to the task, Gilly is making a big difference.

Vickroy recalls observing students as they discussed problems encountered among themselves and thought, “This is wonderful. Either the kids are going to say, ‘This is great, yes I want a guide dog. I know how to take him for a walk and how to play with him; or no; this is a little more responsibility than I want to put out.’ It’s really neat because some kids may not physically be able to have a guide dog but maybe they will be able to have a pet. They’ll learn what it means to care for someone else.”

Gilly’s usefulness extends beyond the basics of his training. Vickroy says students gain more confidence having Gilly with them. For shy ones, Gilly can be a real icebreaker. She also finds that she gets more information from the kids when they are sitting, rubbing Gilly’s head. They’re more relaxed and they’ll talk more readily about themselves and their day. The Job Shop teacher has told her some of the kids now want to work for the Humane Society or a pet shop. After working with Gilly, they can walk dogs, clean up after them, and measure their food. With a sign-off from Vickroy they can go into the work program. “It is really nice now that others can validate what they are doing.”

This innovative teacher’s care for her amazing students goes way beyond the classroom. Vickroy wants the community to understand the difficulties faced daily by all disabled persons. To this end, she hopes to use Gilly as a kind of good-will-ambassador traveling to schools, senior centers, and agencies to better educate people on guide-dogs and how they help. Vickroy explains, “Not all blind people use guide dogs, but many of them do. Talk to them when you meet them. Don’t shy away from them. I would love more stores to understand about guide dogs. Stores and restaurants need to understand what guide dogs mean to a person who has no vision, how trained they are, and why they should be allowed in.”

In a world still ignorant of and prejudiced against disabled people, a special, gentle-soul yellow dog, who couldn’t complete Guide Dog School, now leads the way to better understanding and acceptance among the community, with tail a-wagging.

For more information about Vickroy’s program or about how to volunteer at CSB, contact Marcia Vickroy at (510) 794-3800; or visit

California School for the Blind
500 Walnut Ave
Fremont, CA  94536
(510) 794-3800

For more information about guide dogs, including donor details, contact:
Guide Dogs for the Blind
350 Los Ranchitos Rd.
San Rafael, CA 94903
(800) 295-4050

P.S. Be sure to mention Gilly!

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