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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Guide dog helps UC Davis student see past obstacles

Being blind doesn’t stop Claire Stanley from pursuing two majors at UC Davis.

Although her visual impairment may present many obstacles, Stanley is now better able to maneuver around them with a furry friend by her side.

Stanley, a sophomore double majoring in political science and communication, recently received a 21-month-old black labrador-golden retriever guide dog from the nonprofit organization Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Guide Dogs for the Blind, established in 1942, pairs visually impaired individuals with guide dogs and provides them with intensive training programs at no cost.

“I always wanted to get a guide dog,” Stanley said. She had been traveling with a white cane for over 10 years.

At 9 years old, Stanley suffered from optic nerve glioma, a brain tumor. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, she kept her life but lost her vision.

“Technically, I’m partially blind but I don’t have enough vision to do much so I’m a full-time braille reader,” she said.

Stanley was very excited at the prospect of having a guide dog. But because of the responsibilities, she was told to wait until she was out of high school. She filled out the applications for Guide Dogs for the Blind as soon as she started her first year at UC Davis.

“I went through the interview process and was accepted during winter quarter,” she said. The four-week training program took place in San Rafael and required Stanley to stay in a dormitory.

“You have to be there 24/7 to get all the training,” Stanley said. “You start with baby steps and work your way up.”

Before getting to meet their guide dogs on “Dog Day,” students must first go through a few days of training.

Training begins by learning the commands, gestures and footwork needed to direct a guide dog, said Sierra Fish, Marketing Specialist for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs have already been trained to respond to these commands.

After being introduced to their guide dogs, students learn the routines of feeding, grooming, and relieving of their dogs.

“A typical day starts at 6:30 a.m. so that the dogs can be relieved and they end around 9 p.m. with a final relieving session,” said Fish in an e-mail interview.

The students also learn dog obedience exercises and participate in Guidework sessions.

During Guidework sessions, students learn to work their dog through obstacle courses, crowds of pedestrians, across busy streets, and on stairways, platforms and public transportation, Fish said.

“They took us out to San Francisco and to feel what it’s like to be in a busy community,” Stanley said.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, guide dogs are allowed anywhere a person can go.

At the end of the training program, each student meets with a veterinarian to discuss health and medical history of their guide dogs. They then participate in a graduation ceremony and are ready to go home.

Stanley graduated with her dog, Carola, from Guide Dogs for the Blind on July 26.

Guide Dogs for the Blind matches its students with dogs according to their compatibility in many areas such as communication styles, age and personality.

Stanley believes she and Carola are a perfect match.

“We’ve bonded and get along really well,” she said. “Whenever I leave the room and she doesn’t know where I am, she’ll come find me.”

She likes that Carola is sweet, fun and fast enough to keep up with her college lifestyle.

Since Stanley is not taking courses at UC Davis this summer, she has not yet been back to campus. She said she can’t wait to begin fall quarter with her new friend.

“I wish I could be on campus right now,” she said.

If you see Stanley on campus with her dog, feel free to ask her questions. However, don’t pet the dog because it’s on duty, she said.

Stanley, who grew up in Mission Viejo, Calif., chose UC Davis because she fell in love with the campus. As a political science major, she was excited about being in such close proximity to Sacramento.

“I love the political side of things,” she said. She hopes to go to law school after graduating from UC Davis.

The biggest obstacles to being a college student with visual impairments are communicating with the professors and TAs and trying to let them know the situation, she said.

But despite all the challenges, Stanley believes she and Carola will be able to maneuver through them together.

Guide Dogs for the Blind not only provides individuals with a dog to guide them, but also a companion for life.

The students and individuals have a connection that goes much deeper than what most people have experienced, even with another human being, Fish said, because this relationship requires not just companionship – but absolute trust and interdependence.

“Our graduates have described their guide dog partners as best friends, mind readers, even soul mates,” Fish said.

 

THUY TRAN can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

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