Most people probably aren’t aware that there are 10 accredited guide dog schools for the blind in the United States. Actually, forget about the general public — I am a blind guy and I didn’t even know this. What’s interesting is that each school has different methodologies and training philosophies, and no two are alike. Some guide dog schools predominantly work with Labrador Retrievers, others use German Shepherds, and some are now even using Poodles.
Each school has its own pride, traditions, and success stories. So while all of these schools are very different, the one thing they have in common is they are helping to improve the quality and independence of a blind person.
I recently talked to Lorri Bernson, the media and community liaison at Guide Dogs of America in Los Angeles. Even though Lorri and I come from guide dog schools on opposite sides of the country and have different philosophies, our meeting wasn’t quite like the meeting of the five families in The Godfather — we got along much better.
Dogster: How did you lose your vision?
Lorri Bernson: I had lost vision in one eye due to diabetes, but was still able to get by with vision in one eye. When I lost the vision in my second eye it went very suddenly.
Did you get your first guide dog when the vision went in your second eye?
No. I had to first learn how to get around as a blind person before applying for a guide dog. What a lot of people don’t realize is that guide dog schools expect blind people to be able to be mobile without their guides.
At first I was able to fake it and hide my blindness as I used friends to grab on to and help me get around. One of the biggest hurdles to being blind is first accepting it. I was terrified about letting the world know I was blind, which is why I would use the arm of a friend to get around before learning how to use a cane.
How did you get your first guide dog?
I knew I wanted to get a guide dog, as I loved dogs, and thought how great it would be to have a dog by my side. After researching it I learned that I would first have to be able to get around and be mobile using a cane. So that was the catalyst.
I applied for my first guide dog at the beginning of 2001, and was accepted by Guide Dogs of America in the summer of 2001. Then the waiting period for the appropriate match began. In 2002 I was introduced to Nigel, a beautiful red Golden Retriever. We worked together for eight and a half wonderful years. Retiring him was one of the toughest things I ever had to do, but being introduced to my current guide Carter, a gorgeous half Labrador, half Retriever, made retiring Nigel a little easier.
How did you know it was time to retire Nigel?
There’s nothing harder than retiring a guide dog, especially your first one. What I tell students and graduates is that when you start having to adjust your lifestyle to accommodate your guide’s needs, it is probably time to let him retire. Nigel was slowing down, and his motivation for the work was lacking. He was tired.
What happens to a guide dog when he is retired?
I had planned to keep Nigel. When I came home with Carter, the two of them got along amazingly and would love to play with each other. The only problem was I felt like the two dogs were bonding fantastically, and I was the outsider. I realized as much as my heart want to keep both dogs, having both of them wasn’t going to help me working with my new guide. I also realized that as Nigel got older and was in need of more care that I wasn’t going to be able to take care of him.
I contacted a friend at Guide Dogs of America, and they told me that Nigel’s puppy raisers would love to care for him. In a perfect world I would have kept both of them, but Nigel being with his puppy raisers is the second-best scenario.
You’re not just a guide dog handler. What does a media and community liaison at a Guide Dog School do?
I do anything I can to spread awareness and exposure for the school. I speak publicly to help educate the public about what guide dogs really do, and how incredibly helpful a guide dog can be to someone who is blind. I work with a lot of community organizations locally and nationally who want to learn more about guide dogs.
We get a lot of inquiries from organizations who want to have a speaker come out, or who want to help with fundraising for the school. I also put together our quarterly newsletter, and I am currently working on a big motorcycle ride we hold in May to help raise funds for the school. There’s a lot of planning and getting the word out.
What are your favorite parts of the job?
What I love about my job is that it is very social. I get to constantly work with new people and the media. One of the fun things we did was we named a puppy-in-training Storm and got the local weatherman to track Storm’s training progress on the news. That was a lot of fun.
You are currently the guide dog consultant for NBC’s new show Growing Up Fisher (Tuesday 9:30 p.m. EST), which stars J.K. Simmons and Jenna Elfman. What are your responsibilities?
The creator, D.J. Nash, is pretty much the consultant about what the dog does. My role is teaching and advising the writers about blindness, and what goes along with being blind. I share things that happened to me and different experiences. The show knows where it wants to go, as it is part biography and part comedy. They just wanted a little more insight from someone who is blind, and that is where I come in. What it’s like to live with blindness day in and out.
What should the blind community expect from the show?
A man who happens to be blind treated with integrity, honesty, and respect. A funny show that is heart warming and entertaining. We just hope that people do realize that this isn’t a documentary about guide dogs, it’s a comedy.
What’s the best part of having a guide dog?
The love. Also the independence your guide dog provides you, and constantly being with someone you love so much.
Any advice to someone who is thinking about applying for a guide dog?
Watch out, your world is going to change for the better! It’s like nothing you can imagine.
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About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Along with writing for Dogster, Brian also writes for Cesar Milan’s website and magazine. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. You can connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @Blindgator.