A puppy in training at Guide Dogs of the Desert.

Fans of the CW TV series In the Dark may feel like they have a handle on the inner workings of guide-dog training—but Robert Maher, executive director of Guide Dogs of the Desert, says his organization does so much more than the show depicts, as it tries to meet a huge demand.

“We were started in Palm Springs to serve people from across the country, and most of our students come from California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon,” he said. “There is such an enormous need for dogs across this country that today we have an approximately two-year waiting list for our dogs.”

GDD provides mobility, companionship and independence for the blind and visually impaired with dogs whose abilities are tailored to meet the individual needs of their clients. These life-changing partnerships allow individuals to navigate the world with confidence, whether that means crossing narrow hiking trails for an avid outdoors person, or finding the nearest coffee shop for a devoted caffeine junkie.

GDD was founded 50 years ago at a time when numerous veterans were returning home with not only visual impairments, but other mobility issues that needed to be addressed; GDD was founded to train dogs to meet specific needs. For instance, dogs are traditionally trained to walk on the left side of their owner—but that would not work for someone who has lost the use of their left side.

It all begins with the breeding program. “We know each of our dogs’ parents and grandparents, and that knowledge is integral to knowing what dogs will have the traits to do well as guide dogs,” Maher said.

Once weaned, puppies move into the “Puppy Den,” immersed in an environment that nurtures their intelligence and curiosity. The organization is always looking for volunteers to play and interact with the puppies.

“Getting our dogs used to interacting with as many different people as possible is very important for them to be successful in their careers as guide dogs,” Maher said.

Trainers shape dogs’ behavior, including teaching them to guide through traffic, crowds and stairs; they learn to stop at curbs and steps, avoid low-hanging branches and navigate around pedestrians. The program includes obedience training, specialized commands and exposure to various environments and social situations.

Guide Dogs of the Desert is raising money for a challenge grant: Through May 31, the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation is matching every donation dollar for dollar, up to $30,000.

Remember, if you see a guide dog or a guide dog in training on the street, ask before you pet the dog. Don’t be offended if the answer is no; after all, these dogs are on the job. 

Once the dogs have completed their training, they are matched with an owner based on compatibility and specific needs. It is a process that balances science and intuition, ensuring that each guide dog and recipient complement one another’s personalities and lifestyles. People receiving dogs—even those who have previously had guide dogs—spend approximately a month at the facility in Palm Springs, learning how to work with their new canine partner. As anyone who has gone through obedience school with their pet knows, it is as much about training the person as it is about teaching the dog.

Guide Dogs of the Desert provides its services free of charge to anyone who qualifies. The organization relies on donations from individuals—watch for a major fundraising event in November—as well as corporations and foundations. As of this writing, GDD is raising money for a challenge grant: Through May 31, the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation is matching every donation dollar for dollar, up to $30,000, in an effort to update the 50-year-old Puppy Den to industry standards.

For guide-dog recipients, the impact is life-changing.

“Imagine being unable to see and trying to cross the street,” Maher said. “Our dogs become their human partner’s eyes.” Beyond their practical assistance, these loyal canines also offer emotional support, companionship and an unwavering presence.

Some dogs in the program who wind up not being suited to a guide dog’s life go through a career change and enter the Support K9 Program. They are paired with police officers and first responders to help people deal with traumas like shootings and domestic-violence situations. It is often easier for people experiencing trauma to interact with an empathetic canine than another human being.

As mentioned above, GDD is always looking for volunteers for general support—and to play with puppies!

“By promoting awareness and understanding of visual impairments and the abilities of guide dogs, GDD is challenging misconceptions and stereotypes,” Maher said. “These partnerships break down barriers and inspire us, creating a valuable tool to make the world and our community more equitable.”

For more information, visit guidedogsofthedesert.org.

Charles Drabkin is a native of McMinnville, Ore., the heart of the Oregon Wine Country, where the relationship between food and people was instilled in him at an early age. After working his way around...

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