An Interview With Guide Dog Trainer, Karen Mersereau
Did you know that October is also Adopt-A-Dog month? To celebrate, we are going to be interviewing a number of people involved in the adoption process that you might not interact with.
Karen Mersereau is a guide dog trainer with Southeastern Guide Dogs. The organization breeds and raises their own dogs (Labrador retrievers, to be specific) not for a traditional adoption, but rather a life-changing and lifelong partnership between guide dog and handler. The mission statement of the organization is “to create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.”
There are a number of ways to get involved with the community the organization has created – you can even hug a puppy! We here at PetMeds had the chance to ask a few questions from Karen Mersereau, who surely is busy handling some rambunctious puppies. Thank you to both Southeastern Guide Dogs, Karen, and Jennifer for taking time to answer our questions! Let’s hear what Karen has to say about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into raising and training a guide dog:
Karen, you’re a guide dog trainer at Southeastern Guide Dogs. That’s not necessarily a common field – how did you get into this type of training?
I loved dogs and enjoyed training them and wanted to find a volunteer opportunity that involved dogs. I stumbled upon raising guide dog puppies and realized it was a great fit. I became a puppy raiser for another guide dog school (I lived in Virginia at the time). One day two trainers came to speak to my puppy raising group and I quickly realized that guide dog trainer was my dream job. I quit my job, moved to Florida, started working at Southeastern as a Canine Care Technician and was eventually promoted to the Apprentice program. I have been a guide dog trainer for almost 8 years.
Training a guide dog is much more than training a dog to be obedient or training for show. What is the most difficult aspect of training a guide dog?
Guide dogs are required to do things that are not based on inherent canine behaviors (as opposed to search work or K9 work that builds upon the dog’s instincts to hunt or chase, for instance). The dogs learn behaviors that must seem (to them) to be very random, i.e., stop where the sidewalk meets the street or at steps. It always amazes me that the dogs learn these behaviors as quickly as they do. One of the hardest things to teach them is to stop for an overhang, something that blocks the path of a person, but is high enough off the ground that the dog could pass underneath it.
What personality traits in the guide dog are most important to cultivate? How do you reinforce these good behaviors?
A good guide dog will be resilient, biddable, tolerant, and very confident in all situations. For the most part, dogs are either born with these traits or they are not. That is why we have our own breeding program and breed very specifically to get the traits that make good guide dogs. However, to get an adult dog that is comfortable and confident in any situation, we rely on our puppy raisers to take the pups out and expose them to the world from a young age. Good socialization is important for any puppy, but it is crucial for guide dog puppies and we couldn’t accomplish that without a lot of hard work from our puppy raisers.
Coming into the field, what was the most unexpected situation you found yourself in when training a guide dog?
Trainers hear a lot of interesting comments and questions from people when we’re out working the dogs. We are often asked “is that one of those blind dogs?” (the cheerful reply is, “Gosh, I hope not!”) There is a man in Sarasota who yells out “school is in session!” every time he sees us working dogs. Once a man came up to my dog, leaned over and said in a very serious tone, “Learn your lessons well.”
I’m sure training puppies and young dogs you’ve had a number of…mishaps and laughable situations. What has been the most memorable?
Jennifer here – I remember a funny situation with Karen during training. I was following along as she was working with a student in downtown Sarasota. We were walking along the sidewalk a few yards behind a woman. The student’s dog had just gone around a planter that was in the way, so to get back in the middle of the sidewalk, the student told the dog “over, left” – right on cue, the woman in front of us moved over to the left several steps.
You’re a part of the partnership training with animals and their new owners. What has touched you most about bearing witness to and being a part of this process?
Obviously, the people who get our dogs are blind or visually impaired and very often their visual impairment has prevented them from traveling safely and confidently by themselves. It is extremely rewarding to hand someone a dog that I trained, teach that person how to use the dog, and then watch them leave with the skill and confidence to travel with dignity and independence.
For someone who is coming to you to meet and train their guide dog, what is the biggest piece of advice you give to them?
The most important advice is to trust your dog. He knows his job. He will get you there safely.
Thank you again Karen and everyone at Southeastern Guide Dogs for taking the time to answer our questions, and give us some great new stories!
All images used with permission of Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Interview conducted via email, lightly edited.