26 July 2008

Guide Dog School - GGBr

We were up and on the road by 9:30 to "return" our rental car. It was a screwy deal...we have it for 10 days but we have to return it to the rental lot after 1 week to check it in and then check it out again for the final 3 days. Alan talked to the people when we picked it up to no avail but they were low-level employees so he figured he'd call and talk to a manager/supervisor type person. He called... same result. They've been a pain all along and having to drive all the way back to the airport south of the city by 11am to deal with this is annoying.

So we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge (paying the $5 toll), across downtown SF, and get to the rental car lot. We hadn't gassed it up because it was down a quarter tank or so but we figured it didn't matter because we were just going to turn around and drive it again. However, the car place insisted that we had to "return" it with a full tank so we drove across the street to fill it then back, went through the whole check in process. Then the check out process just to drive away again. It was annoying.

But then it was over and we were on to the rest of our much-more pleasant day. We drove back through SF, across the GGBr again (no toll if you're leaving the city), to San Rafael where the Guide Dogs for the Blind school is.

I'd been listening to the Guide Dog Podcast on my iPod so I knew about the school. When I checked the website before our trip, I saw that they were having a graduation ceremony while we were going to be in the area...and that it's open to the public. This was the only event we had planned for our trip that would be scheduled. I wanted to see the ceremony.

Our plan was to find the school, confirm the start time of the graduation ceremony (we weren't sure if it was 1 or 1:30), then get something to eat and come back for the ceremony and a tour.

However, when we got there, the woman said there was a tour just starting and we could catch it so we decided to tour right then. It was a good tour. We were a group of about 10-12 people, including several people who had raised Guide Dog puppies and a family with a couple of grade-school age kids. We first toured the campus grounds. Our guide told us that they planned the landscaping to smell different in different parts of the campus to help the blind students orient themselves on the grounds. She also pointed out the dorms where the students stay but we didn't go inside those.

We did go into the kennels and training areas where we learned about the breeding program (how they determine which traits they want and select the dogs that will be bred), the whelping area (which we didn't enter as there were dogs with brand new puppies and dogs about to have puppies...but we could see them on a monitor), the kitchen where they prepare the meals for the various groups of dogs (lactating mothers, weaning puppies, weaned puppies, ill dogs, etc), the kennels with weaned puppies, the training court with agility type equipment, etc. It's quite the place.

The tour finished at 1...the graduation ceremony was set to start at 1:30. But we'd intended to eat long ago and were starving. We asked at the front dest for the closest place to eat and were directed to the food court of a mall just up the street. We grabbed some subs, wolfed them down and then headed back to the school.

By then, everybody and their brother was there for the ceremony too and we had a hard time finding a place to park but eventually did. We walked back to the center of campus where the ceremony had already started but wasn't much past the preliminaries.

The stage area was the patio in front of the dormitory. At the back of the stage were the 20-some students sitting in the shade of an arbor on folding chairs. The audience was on the grassy area in front of the stage, also mostly on folding chairs but a few permanent benches and some on blankets picnic-style. We found a spot in the shade.

Each student would walk to the front of the stage when it was his/her turn while the MC gave information about the student...name, hometown, whether this was their first dog, what they do, etc. Then the MC would talk about the dog they were getting as the dog was walked on stage from the left by the person(s) or family who raised it. The people who raised the dog (from weaned to about 18 months) would hand the dog's leash to the blind person. The blind person would take the microphone and talk a little about whatever they wanted. Some talked about how getting this dog was giving them back some independance and dignity, some told a story about an experience they had while they and the dog were training together, they pretty much all thanked people...the trainer they worked with, the family that raised the dog, people who sponsored them, etc.

Then the raisers would say something...sometimes about the temperament of the dog, a story about raising them, how hard it was to give them up after raising and loving them for a year and a half.

There were plenty of emotional moments on both sides of the story.

One blind woman told about how she'd had guide dogs for 25 years, traveled all over the world and had extensive experience working with guide dogs. But the dog she'd just be given had saved her life in a "traffic test" during training. The dog had stopped her from crossing a street when she insisted and actually backed her up.

She hadn't heard the silent electric car coming down the street but the dog had seen it.

There were one or two raisers who were too choked up to say much.

And the students had obviously bonded with each other over the 4-6 weeks in addition to their new dogs. There were a number 'inside jokes' and they all seemed very supportive of each other.
One young man commented during his talk that he'd been blind for "only 18 months" and the entire class said it in unison with him.

There was also a man that had struck up a conversation with Alan just after we finished our tour. He told Alan that his daughter was getting her first dog and they were all very excited. During the ceremony, when that man went up in front of the stage to take a picture of his daughter getting her dog, Alan pointed him out to me. The daughter was a young woman in her second or third year of college.

The students came from all over...2 from Canada, 1 from Kentucky, 1 from Illinois, 1 from Alaska, many from the western states. There were about 6 who were "retrains"...people who'd had dogs before and did a slightly shorter version of the training process. Some of "regular" students...students going through the full training program...had actually had a dog before but wanted the full training as reinforcer.

I have no pictures of any of this...I'd discovered that my camera was turning on in my purse and draining juice when I wasn't using it. I didn't have a charger for it because I always charge it on the docking cradle at home and a good charge usually lasts for more than a week trip.

After the ceremony, we found a Best Buy in San Rafael and I bought a battery charger for my camera batteries. I wanted one anyway, I just hadn't gotten around to getting one. That solved the problem of charging the batteries that evening, but didn't help for the rest of the day.

We left San Rafael and headed back south. We decided we'd head to the Golden Gate Bridge (GGBr) and walk across it. When we got there, it was an absolutely gorgeous day...clear and sunny. From the Marin Headland you could see out to sea, the entire height and length of the GGBr, all of San Francisco, clear across the bay to the Oakland bridge, Sausalito, Alcatraz, Angel Island...it was phenomenal. I don't think I'd ever seen the bridge or city when it wasn't foggy, hazy or cloudy. Too bad my camera batteries died...the charger I bought came with 2 sets of batteries. One of them had enough juice for me to take 2 pictures...that's it. The only pictures I took all day.

Vista Point is a viewing staging area for getting to the pedestrian walk across the bridge but we couldn't figure out how to get there without going across the bridge (paying the toll) and coming back. We drove around a lot and finally gave up and asked someone working at a grocery store in Sausalito if there was a way to get to Vista Point without crossing the bridge. She said there's no way to drive there. But there's a parking lot across the highway from Vista Point that has a pedestrian crossing underneath that will take you right there.

We found the parking lot and the pedestrian crossing. It was pretty cool to see the bridge from the underside...all the struts and bracing and supports. If we'd managed to drive to Vista Point, we'd never have known this crossing was here and wouldn't have seen the underside.

At Vista Point we got on the bridge and started across. By that time it was getting late enough in the day that we decided not to walk the whole way...we stopped halfway, in the middle of the center swag. We got an up-close look at the 4' bundles of cable swags that hold up the bridge. The smaller, vertical cables (in groups of 4) are bigger around than I can grasp with one hand and have my thumb and finger touch...my hand is short by about an inch and a half.

We walked back to the car and then headed into Sausalito to look for supper.

Downtown was buzzing with activity on a lovely Saturday night. As we drove down the main street along the waterfront, I saw a guy building rock towers from the rip-rap on the shore. I don't know why...maybe to amuse tourists and solicit tips. I only got a quick look as we drove by but they looked amazing . They were towers of 7-8, large, odd-shaped...stacked one on top of one on top of one in what looked like a gravity-defying sort of display.

We ended up eating at Saylor Restaurant. It was a bit outside the downtown area where the crowd hadn't spread so we got right in. I finally had cioppino! Alan had grilled shrimp and scallops. Just about the time we were done and leaving, the musicians started playing...a vocalist and a instrument player or two playing soft jazz.