When I meet Eddie, a yellow Labrador, at a friend’s family barbecue in Detroit, it’s clear he isn’t like other dogs. He knows how to sit, stay and walk (on- or off-leash), but his best trick is being able to read a room. Whether his role is to greet a guest, play with children or rest his head on my lap as we drink beers by the bonfire, Eddie always does the right thing. All the while, he’s never a nerd about his intrinsic obedience. “Dude, what’s your dog’s deal?” I eventually ask Delia Bryan, Eddie’s owner and a family friend.
“He’s a guide-dog-school reject,” she tells me.
Bryan’s family has raised guide dogs ever since she was a kid, when her sister begged her parents for a puppy and they countered with the idea of raising a guide puppy every year. Bryan’s mother, who ran a home-based daycare and had volunteered for a guide school before having a family, thought it would be a great way to teach her children the responsibility of having a dog, and how to say goodbye to one without it dying. Bryan remembers sobbing though many childhood car rides to send off dogs named Jude, Anthony and Kenny to pursue their careers. (Most were named after Catholic saints or dead relatives.)
Like many guide dogs, Eddie, now 6, was born into the system through a breeding program at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Michigan. While dog owners can attempt to independently train their own service animals, most are bred by guide schools that identify breeds large enough to pull people out of traffic yet small enough to ride public transportation — Labs and retrievers mostly, with the occasional German Shepherd or boxer.
For their first seven weeks, dogs live at school and are carefully socialized by professional trainers, who introduce them to street sounds, other animals and people with funny hats. They’re also given the run of a sensory playroom full of stairs, mirrors and new surfaces to explore.
From there, the puppies are sent to live with volunteers for a year, where they learn basic obedience. Finally, they return to the school for four months of intensive training. Working with trainers, they learn how to lead people from point A to point B; to stop at curbs, stairs and obstacles like tree limbs; and to detect any change in elevation. Dogs live on campus with dog roommates, go on field trips to New York City to ride the subway (some schools even go to the theater) and attend picnics to get acquainted with their new teachers and classmates. It’s more or less dog college.
Throughout, however, they can be booted for health problems, lack of confidence, distractibility, not walking or going to the bathroom on particular surfaces, having an underbite, barking at bearded men, being too high-maintenance and much, much more.
Eddie made it through all of his training before his second birthday and even attended a graduation ceremony. It was there, though, that things went to shit. More specifically, racquetballs did him in. He no longer wanted to graduate as much as he wanted to wag his tail, play fetch and disrupt a very serious ceremony. The balls were put away, but his concentration was broken beyond repair. After the ceremony, the Bryans were told Eddie wouldn’t be continuing his work.
To me, this sounded like entrapment. Not to mention unfair, since it took only one strike for Eddie to strike out. “That’s how they find out how serious the dog really is,” explains Bryan. “It’s like those tough job interviews where they take you out drinking to see how you’ll act.”
“Less than 5 percent of dogs are cut out for service-dog work, and many ‘wash out’ during training,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified dog trainer and pet expert with Rover.com. Ellis estimates that guide-dog students who are trained by their owners instead of schools have about a 20 to 30 percent success rate, whereas dogs who are trained through institutions have a success rate of around 50 percent. The attrition rate is higher than most colleges and companies because people’s lives depend on these dogs making the right decisions. So they aren’t exactly set up for failure, but many of them will due to the nature of the work.
“We don’t say the F-word. We prefer ‘reassigned,’ ‘career-changed’ or perhaps ‘withdrawn,’” says Rob Clarke, the owner of Maddie, a black Lab, who was withdrawn from training after being used to breed other guide dogs. By the time she was done having puppies and training to be a guide dog, Maddie was almost 3 years old and set in her ways. “She was too used to me and not confident in her trainer,” Clarke explains.
Clarke’s sensitivity to language isn’t unique. Bryan notes the shift in semantics from “reject” to “career change” over the years. That said, she’s sure to add, “I don’t think Eddie really cares about the nuance.”
The political correctness comes from a place of respect toward people who depend on guide dogs, as well as the amount of work and resources devoted to raising and training them, which can cost up to $60,000 per dog. When dogs are released, school administrators tend to give volunteers like Bryan first dibs on adoption because they have such a strong bond. “When their dogs don’t make it through, it’s bittersweet because they spent a year loving and raising that dog for a bigger purpose,” says Michelle Barlak, a PR specialist at The Seeing Eye. Still, she continues, “If they don’t make it as a guide dog, maybe they can do another type of service they’re better suited for because of their high aptitude and willingness to work.”
Case in point: Lauren Burke has a career-change dog named Ricki, a 6-year-old yellow Lab who is trained to detect her diabetes through smell when Burke’s blood sugar changes more than 10 percent. Ricki was released in the final phase of guide-dog training for having “hackles,” or a shark-fin-like fur on the ridge of her back that sticks up and can be seen as a sign of aggression. “A lot of the dogs Early Alert Canines [a group that trains medical-alert assistance dogs for insulin-dependent diabetics such as herself] gets from Guide Dogs for the Blind are dropped for seemingly silly reasons,” explains Burke, who now works for Early Alert as a development manager. Because for her, she says, “Ricki is a perfect dog.”
Burke’s colleague, Jason Guthrie, has an alert dog named Eli, a 12-year-old yellow Lab who was originally born into a guide dog breeding program. Despite making it through all the training, he was released for an underbite. “I personally think it’s the most charming thing about him. But guide dogs have to be perfect, apparently,” says Guthrie, who is the president of Early Alert’s board of directors.
Lorri Bernson, a media and community liaison for Guide Dogs of America, explains that although being released for an underbite seems extreme, it’s likely because the dog may be more prone to dental issues and, therefore, require more maintenance in the future. “It’s not because of how an underbite looks, but the possibility that it might need surgery one day,” Bernson says. It’s just too many sick days.
Similar exclusions exist for high-maintenance breeds. Although poodles are capable of being good guide dogs, they’re typically only used for individuals with severe allergies because they need a lot of grooming. However, when Trina Ross adopted the Goldendoodle Libby (short for Lady Liberty) in 2013, who was described as “flunking out, lol” of a service-dog academy in an ad online, Libby’s hair wasn’t the only high-maintenance thing about her. “The training is hard on dogs, and I think the ones that don’t make it through have issues from that — at least mine did,” Ross explains. She describes Libby as overtrained and neurotic for the first two years she had her.
Libby also suffered severe separation anxiety that made it hard for Ross to go anywhere. Later, she learned that Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope, the organization that had trained Libby, had been shut down. Allegations leveled against it included using harsh methods such as a “training stick,” unsanitary boarding conditions and even a “bait-and-switch” incident: One family was promised a chocolate Lab named Thor, who was euthanized and replaced with another dog.
Ross found out as well that Libby was abruptly moved from one puppy raiser in Colorado Springs to another in Nebraska after a volunteer got sick. She suspects this move contributed to Libby’s anxiety, which has improved over the past few years. One aspect of her training, though, has stuck: Libby doesn’t know how to play. “I don’t think she ever will, because she didn’t get that as a puppy,” Ross says. “I feel bad for her because she doesn’t know how to act like a dog.”
Eddie, on the other hand, never forgot he was a dog first and foremost. Being too much of one is what ultimately brought down his career in a ballsy blaze of glory. Bryan also credits their other dog, a geriatric terrier named Maggie, with keeping Eddie calm over the years.
In a strange twist of fate, however, Maggie went blind last summer. In other words, Eddie finally had a second chance to put his training to use, only this time it was with another dog. Yet, to no one’s surprise, that didn’t work out either. “We were like, ‘He can be her seeing-eye dog!’ But he just knocks into her. I don’t think he remembers how to do his job,” Bryan says.