Future guide dogs take first big whiff of Muni

About a dozen puppies from 6 to 15 months old took their first Muni ride Saturday, causing a sight rarely seen aboard the transit service: A train full of smiles.

San Rafael-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, alongside SFMTA, hosted a training event that stretched from Van Ness Station to the Ferry Building, and back.

Rider Bill Bechtel of San Leandro, sporting a smile cheek-to-cheek, told SFBay:

“I always thought guide dogs were kept away from other guide dogs. … But here they are having a convention.”

Aboard the train, labradors and golden retrievers socialized among themselves, offering kisses and licks as volunteers did the same — minus the kisses and licks. But while the humans admired the cute, semi-floppy puppies, the dogs were hard at work adjusting to San Francisco’s public transportation system — a task difficult for even most humans.

Jeanne Baker held the leash of Wicker, a 15-month old female golden lab on the tail end of her of her stay with Baker in San Ramon. In one week, Wicker returns to the school’s San Rafael headquarters for the next stage in her training.

Soon, Wicker will know if she’s one of the 50 percent of dogs that make it into the major leagues of dog service: guiding the visually impaired. The rest of the puppies, Baker says, “change careers” by becoming dogs for diabetics, assisting with search and rescue, or serving people with autism.

This the last chance for many of the pups to shine.

Wicker looked particularly vibrant and comfortable amid all the cameras and strangers. For Baker, who is on her 22nd dog in as many years, Wicker’s departure is particularly sad. They’ve grown quite attached, she said with a laugh, yet half-seriously:

“Of my 22 dogs, this is my second favorite, which will be a big rip my heart out. Do you want me to cry right now?”

Though Baker grows attached to the dogs, she’s happy to see them go off to do what she calls some of the toughest work service animals can do:

“Guide dogs, of any other service dog, have the hardest job because they have to make decisions. All the other dogs respond to commands, these guys have to be decision makers.”

Karen Woon, vice president of marketing at Guide Dogs for the Blind, stood excited atop the inbound Van Ness Muni platform as she and fellow dog lovers waited to ride the train wrapped in giant dog faces. Woon said the dog-themed street car was among the reasons the dog school choose to gather pups from around Bay Area to come to The City for a short ride.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato helped direct the puppies and humans as the group rode a J-line train wrapped in the advertisement for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The ad is scheduled to be removed this week after being up for close to two months.

Kato told SFBay:

“We’ve been collaborating mainly with our marketing team at SFMTA, and with Guide dogs for the blind, because we thought this would be both a good training event for them. … And everybody loves puppies.”

Kato spoke of SFMTA’s desire to show how accessible its system is for people with disabilities. Among the list of services are free, unmuzzled rides for service dogs adding it’s “posted on every operating door on every train.”

Among the group of doggie enthusiasts was a visually impaired women whose appreciation for guide dogs is a daily ritual. Maia Scott received her golden retriever Fiddler three years ago. Fiddler is an alumnus of the dog school, plus one of shaggiest, and oldest retrievers aboard the train.

Scott and Fiddler travel aboard San Francisco public transit everyday. Though Scott said it’s the reason she moved to The City 20 years ago, and she feels Muni has become more and more user friendly throughout the years, she said she still has problems with the audio stop alerts:

“The bus I took this morning: the stops weren’t calling. … It’s automatic, but sometimes they don’t work, sometimes they’re turned down real low. There’s some variables: it can be really crowded, people can be talking loud, or if I’m in the back of the bus or the end of the station where the speaker saying: ‘now approaching the J.’”

She even has a solution for SFMTA: An app:

“It’d be great if there was something on my phone, like an app that I could count on to call the stops for me.”

The training session was held as the guide dog school celebrates its 75th anniversary. In 1942, founders Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson started the West Coast’s first guide dog school down in then-rural Los Gatos as wounded servicemen were returning from WWII without their sight. Guide Dogs for the Blind was the second school of its kind in the nation, and has since risen to become the largest guide dog school in the United Unites, and the second-largest worldwide.