Guide dog schools exist because people need their services. People who are blind or have significant visual impairments and have decided that they would rather walk with a dog than with a cane as a primary mobility aid have every right to have high expectations of their chosen guide dog school. This is the case even though guide dogs are provided either completely free of charge or else for a nominal fee that doesn't even begin to cover the actual costs. Why should people have high expectations of something that is free? Because, to me as an instructor, being able to meet those expectations is simply THE RIGHT THING TO DO. It has nothing to do with clients getting what they pay for; it has to do with instructors having a job to do and doing it right.
I can't see it any other way than this: someone has done the research, chosen my school, and plans to invest a month of his or her time, away from family and work and in an unfamiliar environment, and entrust his or her life to a dog that I am putting my stamp of approval on, saying, "In my professional opinion, this is a dog that you will be safe with and that will be an asset to your life, not something that will make it more difficult." Anything less than that shouldn't be acceptable.
(Yes, I just got out of class -- four weeks of class followed immediately by ten days of field work -- but I'm not writing this because of something I saw in class or as any kind of jab at any individual who I think isn't doing the job right. Nothing of the kind. It's just that after being immersed in working with clients for such a long time, I had a lot of opportunity to think about why I do this and what my clients have a right to expect of ME as an instructor.)
So, without further discussion, here are the things that I consider myself to owe you if you come into class as one of my clients:
1) A thorough-as-possible understanding of your life and needs prior to coming into class. This includes a thorough reading of everything in your file (EVERYTHING -- even if you have had seven dogs from us and your file is as thick as a good-sized city's Yellow Pages), discussions with your previous instructor(s) and the trainer(s) of your past dogs, whenever possible, and a phone call to you. This gives me the understanding of what you're looking for, what sort of dog will best match your lifestyle, any preferences you have, any pet peeves you have about dogs, and any concerns you have about coming into class and training with a new dog.
2) Extensive consideration put into which dog(s) could be potential matches for you, and enough time spent working the dogs on the short list so that I have a good idea of differences between them in several different categories (energy, soundness, distraction, social behavior, et cetera). This also includes exposure to any unusual environments that you work in (schools, gyms, right-shoulder country work, Pentecostal churches, or anything else outside the normal routine things guide dogs encounter in training).
3) Total availability for you and your needs during class. Even though instructors now have more time off during class than I have ever had at any point in my career, to me that time off always comes with an unstated "...as long as your clients don't need anything." And if they do, like more obedience practice, more distraction practice, further discussion of something they didn't understand all the way, then nothing in my personal life is so important it can't go on the back burner, for the entire length of class if necessary. I look at like this: I have 26 days to make you and your dog as successful as possible. After that, you go home and I go on vacation and I won't worry about you anymore. But the only way I can do that with a clear conscience is if I know that I gave 100% effort while you were here in class.
4) Honest communication regarding the progress of you and your dog as a team. If you and your dog are struggling with something, it is my duty as a professional to evaluate whether I think this is something that will improve with time and practice or whether it is something that indicates the match won't work and will put your safety at risk at home. You may love your dog very much and it may still turn out to not be the right guide for you -- that is a fact. We may have only one dog for you and it may not work out, or may develop a medical problem. That is very sad, but it is also a fact that it sometimes happens. I'm not doing you any favors by understating the severity of a problem.
5) Willingness to work with you on developing a training plan as specific to your individual needs as possible. There is no "one size fits all" program in guide dog training. People are so different in their personalities, health, lifestyles, stamina, environments, everything that it really doesn't make sense to force everyone to undergo exactly the same program. It's true that this becomes difficult in a class environment with 20+ clients, and always-limited time and resources, but that doesn't mean I can't do my best to customize your training while you're here.
6) Willingness to listen to your feelings and concerns about your dog. Just because something "shouldn't" bother someone doesn't mean that it doesn't. No dog is perfect; every dog has things they are awesome at and things they could do better at. But if something your dog does bothers you so much that having the dog causes more stress than it alleviates, I have to listen to that, even if it's something that I personally consider not a big deal. Occasional accidents in harness are a good example. If I had a guide dog, I would not consider the occasional accident in harness a big deal. I would shrug it off and say, "You gotta' go, you gotta' go; that's why I carry bags." A lot of guide dog users feel the same way, but a lot of them don't. To many people, having a dog that might have an accident in harness is so stressful that it affects their ability to function as a team with the dog. You can't work a dog comfortably if every time you set out on a walk you are worrying about whether there's going to be an accident, whether you'll be able to pick up, how you'll find a trash can, et cetera. If that bothers you, it is not for me to make a judgment about whether it should or shouldn't. The fact is, it DOES, and needs to be addressed, and if not fixed quickly, there needs to be a dog change. A dog change in class is not the worst thing that can happen -- the worst thing that can happen is sending you home with the wrong dog so you can struggle for months and then return the dog and have to take more time out of your schedule to train with another one.
7) Honesty with you about your dog's quirks and history in training. This doesn't mean telling you about every bad thing your dog has ever done, but it does mean candid discussion of how the dog responded to different tasks and environments to the extent that your work with the dog could be affected. For example, if your dog took a long time to learn country work and to generalize it to different areas, you need to be aware of that so that you know you have to check the shoreline more frequently and reinforce more heavily in that environment than you might otherwise have to. Or if your dog generally has good focus on its work but has one particular thing that distracts it more than we would like, you need to know about that distraction so that you can take appropriate control measures if you think you're going to be in an environment where that distraction might appear.
8) Not taking it personally if you have a bad day and get frustrated with me or with training. New dogs and class environment are stressful! You don't have to have a happy face all the time. I know it's not about me. I am pretty much impossible to offend, and it's way better to take it out on me than it is to take it out on your classmates, or, even worse, your dog. My skin is a lot thicker than theirs.
9) No surprises (or, as few as possible). This means being as clear as we can about things like schedule and expectations. We don't always know in advance what the weekly schedule will be. Although we always have one prepared, we deviate from it as often as not based on the individual needs of clients and also on things like the weather. Sometimes we do lecture during the day if we have time and don't do it during the scheduled lecture time at night, and this is not always something we can predict at the beginning of the day. But there is no excuse for not sharing the things we do know about for sure. And there is also no excuse for springing something on you like, "Today we're going to have you walk a new route independently. Here's the directions, see you when we get back." If we're going to ask you to do something new or different, you're going to know about it in advance if I'm your instructor.
10) Willingness to explain things as many times as needed without getting impatient. We teach hundreds of new things in class. Most people need several repetitions before something can be truly learned. Needing to hear something ten times doesn't mean you're stupid or a slow learner -- it means we're throwing so much stuff at you that it takes your brain a while to organize it all.
That's my short list; I'm sure I could come up with more. I'm curious to know from guide dog users who have been in class -- not just at Leader, but anywhere -- what are your expectations of your instructors? Is there anything important I'm missing? Let me know.