ACB is a national organization committed to advancing the interests of blind and visually impaired people in the U.S. ACB members advocate for things like equality in the workplace, improved access both in built environments and in telecommunications, and education for the public. ACB also provides a forum for discussing current issues related to the needs of people who are blind and visually impaired, and provides access to current information on products and services. ACB also has many special interest affiliates within the organization, including Guide Dogs Users, Inc, or GDUI, the interest group for people who work with guide dogs. Every year ACB holds a national convention, which is well-attended by people with guide dogs. Most guide dog schools send at least a couple of instructors for representation. I have always loved going to conventions, and didn't get to go last year because I was in class. Happily, I was not in class this year so was free to go to convention!
My first ACB convention was in 2001. I was working at Guiding Eyes then and the convention was in Des Moines. It was a very enlightening experience to get to see so many guide dog teams from all of the different schools. It was nice too because, as instructors, we work with mostly brand-new teams. The person and dog are still getting to know each other and working through the inevitable road bumps experienced in any new partnerships. National convention is a place where you really get to see the good stuff -- the teams that have been together for years and work so fluidly that their communication is almost invisible to an observer.
When instructors go to conventions, we have a few major functions: 1) assist with GDUI functions as much as we can, 2) touch base with our own school's grads who are at the conventions, and give them help as needed, 3) man the booth in the exhibit hall and answer questions about our programs and services, 4) communicate and exchange ideas with instructors from other schools. All of these things keep us pretty busy. You can't think of convention as a vacation. I worked much more than 8-hour days while I was there, and I was so wiped out at the end of each day that I wish I had added a couple vacation days on just to enjoy Vegas.
Conventions are a lot of fun, but they can be very stressful on dogs. For one thing, convention centers are typically pretty complex environments. One pretty firm rule for using a guide dog effectively is that the person has to know how to direct the dog. Otherwise, the dog will just try to guess what the person wants or else go where it wants to go. For this reason, one of our first duties as instructors is to help explain the layout of the hotel and convention center to guide dog users. This convention was held at the Riviera, one of Las Vegas's oldest hotel/casinos. I thought of it as being moderately challenging. All of the convention rooms were down the same long hallway, so once you got into that hallway, finding the rooms wasn't particularly difficult. The hotel had three restaurants as well as a food court and a couple of coffee shops, most of which weren't anywhere near the convention hallway, so people had to learn where those were too. The hotel lobby and registration desk area was a vast Bermuda Triangle -- a wide open space with very few landmarks to give people direction, and one that they had to pass through every single time they went from hotel to convention and back. One of the hardest things about being an instructor at conventions is seeing people get mad at their dogs for not knowing how to get to a place they've only been to a couple of times when the person has no idea how to get there themselves. Thankfully, the great majority of guide dog users are not like this. If they don't know how to get somewhere, they will just wait until someone walks by that they can ask for directions.
Another difficulty of conventions is that there are so many people using canes. Many more people who are blind use canes than use dogs. At conventions, every walk from hotel to convention center is a gauntlet of swinging canes that the dog has to run. Of course the people using the canes don't know there's a dog in front of them, so it's not their fault if they hit a dog, and it's not the dog's fault either because often the dog doesn't see the cane because it is concentrating on avoiding another cane coming from another direction. You can see on the dogs' faces when they are approaching the state of being "conventioned out" -- a kind of fatigue combined with dread when the dog leaves a meeting room and sees a line of canes coming down the hall in its direction. A lot of this stress can be alleviated by giving the dogs plenty of down time, bringing favorite toys to play with in the room, and using t-touch on them during breaks, and most guide dog users are very conscientious about doing these kinds of things.
One more stressful thing about conventions is the park areas. In a hot, dry, desert city like Las Vegas, there is a lot of pavement and hardly any grass. So there are park areas set up with big squares of artificial turf. Experienced convention-going dogs know what this is for, but new dogs can take some convincing. Fortunately there was one park area with real grass at the Riviera. It was in the convention center area, so it was a good walk from the hotel, but at least it was there for those dogs who were the most reluctant to use the artificial turf. I do not blame those dogs. With the number of dogs using the park areas, it was impossible to keep them completely clean -- although I think whoever was in charge of that did a reasonably good job most of the time considering the magnitude of the task -- and the looks on some of those dogs' faces when confronted with the park area pretty definitively said "No." I compared it to the look on my face when I step into some of the Porta-Johns at big city marathons at the end of the day. No thanks. There's a point at which I would rather just have an accident or else pee somewhere forbidden, like a potted plant or something. Plenty of dogs chose that option, too, and hotel cleanup staff was kept pretty busy cleaning the long corridors between hotel and convention center.
Those are the stressful things about conventions. The best things are, as I said before, the chance to watch good teams working together and, as I haven't said before, the chance to catch up with people from other schools. Many of my oldest friends in the guide dog world were here, and it was an amazing chance for us to discuss training methods and also have a few drinks together and unwind from the long, busy days. I have heard from people who have been doing this job a lot longer than I have that in the old days at conventions, as an instructor, you wouldn't even talk to someone with a guide dog if that person wasn't a graduate of your school. It's hard for me to believe, but then again I have also heard that in the old days guide dog instructors didn't like canes and O&M instructors didn't like guide dogs. Thankfully we have all evolved past that attitude and now work together I think pretty well. When I gave my hotel orientations, I didn't have any Leader grads in my groups; it was all people from Seeing Eye and Guide Dogs for the Blind. I saw and talked to so many people who were formerly in my classes at Guiding Eyes or Seeing Eye that I almost forgot sometimes what school I work for. That was another great thing about the convention -- I got to hear about the working careers of lots of the earliest dogs I trained, including the VERY first person I ever trained with the very first dog I ever put out at Guiding Eyes! He's now about to retire his second dog from Guiding Eyes, and it was great to hear that the first one worked out well for him and had a happy life (even if not long enough).
Overall, it was a great experience, and I am already looking forward to next year.