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Guide Dogs for the Blind plans to build $20M puppy center

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Guide Dogs for the Blind

350 Ranchitos Road, San Rafael

guidedogs.com

Founded: 1942

Satellite campus: Portland, ore.

Active guide–client teams: 2,200 in U.S. and Canada

Total teams graduated: 14,000-plus

2015 fundraising: $30.7 million

Of the hundreds of puppies evaluated for Guide Dogs for the Blind’s program, only about two in five have what it takes to become a guide.

But the San Rafael-based nonprofit is betting $20 million that it can push that success rate past half with a deeper focus on a puppy’s first weeks of life.

Guide Dogs plans to start construction next spring on a 28,000-square-foot “puppy center” at its main San Rafael campus. When completed, anticipated in summer 2018, it will become the new place where the organization’s puppies are whelped and socialized over the critical first 10 weeks.

“The reason the first 10 weeks are so critical is same reason the first three years of human life are so critical, because personalities are set during that period,” said CEO Christine Benninger.

Each year about 900 puppies are bred at the organization’s 11,000 square-foot San Rafael breeding facility. Breeding stock comes from 400 custodians who keep the dogs in their homes. Puppies leave Guide Dogs at age 10 weeks to live with one of the organization’s 2,000 puppy-raisers in 10 Western states. At age 1 year, the dogs return to San Rafael or the Portland campus for guide training. Evaluation of the puppies begins at five days old, and the team is on the lookout for the extreme confidence needed for a guide.

Currently, 42 percent of Guide Dogs’ puppies become guides or breeders. The goal is to increase that to 55 percent, so not as many puppies will be required to increase the number of guides graduating, Benninger said.

“Guide work is the highest level of service any dogs do, whether bomb detection or search and rescue or wheelchair-assist or PTSD. Being guides is the most challenging, because guides have to make independent decisions. If they get a command to cross the street and see a car coming that makes it unsafe to cross — especially with Priuses, which you can’t hear coming — the dog has to disobey the command and pull the person out of the way. All other service work is taking commands, and if they do not get it right the first time, they may get a second chance to do it. With guide work, they don’t get second chance.”

Designed by the Sacramento office of Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture with dog-related interior specifications by Denver-based Animal Arts, Guide Dogs’ planned puppy center would have a puppy nursery for mothers to nurture their pups and a “Young Heroes Academy,” dedicated area for enriched socialization. Also planned is an interactive lab, with educational displays and dedicated areas for the public to view puppy activities.

The concept for the puppy center has been developing for a decade, but the organization hasn’t been able to undertake a new building in San Rafael until two years ago, Benninger said. The organization has raised $12 million so far toward the center, announcing that milestone and unveiling the design during the group’s annual Fun Day on July 16.

The goal is to make it through San Rafael review in time for bidding and work to begin next spring. If the fundraising target isn’t reached by then, the organization would finance the rest, Benninger said.

Three years ago, new living quarters were built on the campus, able to accommodate up to 20 students and configured with the blind or visually impaired in mind.

A future project anticipated would address the challenge of increasing the number of people eligible for the program to be teamed with a guide.

“One of the key reasons they’re denied access to the school is because they do not have enough mobility or orientation skills for life as blind person,” Benninger said. “A guide can take you from point A to B and keep you safe, but you need to know how to negotiate the world.”

So a next step toward serving more people is providing mobility and orientation skills needed to operate with a guide dog, she said. There are no specific plans, yet but it could be like preguide-dog course, giving people skills to practice then come back to the school.

Guide Dogs for the Blind was started in 1942 and has graduated more than 14,000 guide–client teams. Currently, about 2,200 teams are working in the U.S. and Canada. All services are free to clients, including veterinary visits and visits to check on the team. Costs are covered by donations without government funding.

The average team works together for eight years. The dogs work on average until age 10–11. If a guide is noticed to be missing cues or isn’t agile enough, it’s a joint decision to retire the guide to the home of the client, a family member or a volunteer suited for the highly socialized animals.

Guide Dogs for the Blind

350 Ranchitos Road, San Rafael

guidedogs.com

Founded: 1942

Satellite campus: Portland, ore.

Active guide–client teams: 2,200 in U.S. and Canada

Total teams graduated: 14,000-plus

2015 fundraising: $30.7 million

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