Want a job training guide dogs?

dog-blogLast Tuesday my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I gave a guest lecture for an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Some of the undergraduates in the audieince came up to the stage afterwards, and I took Whitney’s harness off. I’d mentioned during my talk that when my dog doesn’t have her harness on, you’re allowed to pet her. I didn’t mention that Whitney gives kisses when her harness is off, too.

“I love dogs!” one of the students gushed, thanking me for taking time in my talk to explain what it takes to become a Seeing Eye instructor. “Now I’m thinking maybe I could train guide dogs for a living.” And you know what? Maybe she could!

I trained with my dog Whitney at the Seeing Eye school in Morristown, N.J., and staff instructors there are full-time employees who hold college degrees from all different fields of study. After graduating from college, they have to complete three years of specialized on-the-job training at the Seeing Eye school before becoming a full-fledged instructor. Some of the instructors I’ve met there majored in teaching, others in business, and some in fields like animal science.

Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and a lot of them started out with jobs as kennel assistants at The Seeing Eye before beginning their apprenticeships to become trainers. The Seeing Eye website says they look for people who “relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather.”

When people ask me about training guide dogs, I always remind them that they won’t just be working with dogs. They’ll be working with people, too. We blind folks are all different ages, and we have all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences behind us. Some of us are newly blind and still adjusting, others have been blind our entire lives. Although some of us might be easy to work with, a lot of us can be brats. We test our teacher’s patience. A puppy-raiser blog says it well :

Guide Dog trainers must work with a variety of dogs within a given size range. A great deal of walking and upper body strength is required to mold hyper young dogs into responsible workers.

In the beginning, when working with dogs alone, this may not seem bad, but soon the apprentice must team dog training with people training. You can’t leash correct your blind student, or give him/her a dirty look and expect the undesired behavior or wrong actions to stop. You must verbally communicate while physically managing to keep up with the dog. Coming out of yourself to work with both dogs and people is a special skill and not one to be taken lightly.

Schools receive literally hundreds of applications a year from people who want to train guide dogs, so even opportunities to become an apprentice are rare. Most guide dog schools do require instructors to do an apprenticeship, and some apprenticeships last as long as four years. Salaries can start in the $40,000 range for those in apprentice training programs, and salaries for full-time instructors can start as high as $50,000. If that student I talked to Tuesday really does love dogs and wants to do meaningful work, I hope she applies!

If you have a disability or are a veteran and would like help finding a job, Easter Seals has employment resources.


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