"Take Your Dog to Work Week” might be something dog owners only dream about, but HFMA member Laurie Dawson is living the dream.
In reality, Dawson is working two jobs at once. As she goes about her everyday duties as director of revenue cycle management for Wenatchee (Wash.) Valley Medical Center, she’s also simultaneously raising a black Labrador named Rebel to be a certified guide dog for Guide Dogs for the Blind. “I liken myself to a foster mom,” she says.
Raising a potential guide dog is a 24-hour job that lasts about 15 months, on average. “Every moment is a training opportunity,” says Dawson, who is a member of HFMA’s Washington-Alaska Chapter. Ever since Rebel joined her two- retriever household when he was three months old, the black Lab has accompanied her to work every day. He goes with her to meetings, the restroom, and company events. He attends church with her and even joined her in the choir loft on a recent Sunday. Dawson takes him to restaurants, department stores, and conferences.
“We go wherever a visually impaired person would go, which is anywhere,” Dawson says. “We socialize the dogs so they’re familiar with as many surroundings as possible.”
Training opportunities include teaching Rebel to sleep under her desk at work, standing close by with a leash over his back in a public restroom, walking through puddles, and “doing his business” on hard surfaces. Rebel now has started to exhibit “patterning,” meaning he anticipates what she’s going to do and will expect of him. “He becomes just an extension of me,” she says, “so the time involved in working with him has really not hindered my work.”
The puppy also has become a welcome addition at her job. “Rebel is a hit in the office,” Dawson says. “A few weeks after he started coming to work, another raiser picked him up to take him to a socialization event. Three employees came to me, wanting to know who was taking Rebel and where they were taking him. They were concerned he wasn’t coming back!”
She often receives comments from Rebel’s “co-workers” such as “He makes me smile whenever I see him,” she says. “Rebel is a definite morale booster.”
Outside the office, Dawson and Rebel walk up to two hours a day, with the walks serving as training opportunities as well as exercise. “We’ll take a walk in the morning before work, usually a half-hour one at lunch time, and at least an hour walk every evening,” she says. “It’s good exercise for me, too.”
Dawson had to go through training herself to foster Rebel. After joining a local club for Guide Dogs for the Blind that recently started near her, a club leader made a home visit, after which she had to complete an application and read materials on the different training techniques and guidelines that needed to be followed. After a person gets a puppy to raise, a field representative evaluates the dog quarterly to check progress, Dawson says.
Her local club meets twice a month, and each meeting includes a training session. Group members also organize socialization events, such as an outing to a miniature golf course, dinner, even a train ride.
Having Rebel with her at work and in public has also given Dawson another type of training opportunity—educating the public on how to interact with a service dog. “Don’t approach the dog; approach the person,” she advises. “That dog is an extension of that person.”
In July, Dawson’s training opportunities with Rebel will be done, but his training will just be beginning. “You raise the dog,” Dawson says. “Then the dog goes off to its formal training—what we call college.” There, expert trainers teach the dogs skills, for three to five months, such as how to judge curb heights and when to disobey a command because it’s going to put the visually impaired person’s safety possibly at risk. Only about 50 percent of the dogs graduate, she says. Those that do then are partnered with a visually impaired person and start their working career as a guide.
Dawson has high hopes that Rebel will reach that ultimate goal. “I’m going to miss him when he goes,” she admits. “But I’m going to be watching with excitement through his college progression. I plan on posting progress reports outside my office so all the staff can root him on.
“They don’t want to see him go either. But when he gets that ‘diploma’—his visually impaired partner—we’re all going to be really happy.”
As the person who raised Rebel, Dawson would get to participate in the graduation ceremony, literally handing over his leash to his new partner. “I’m a dog lover, so this experience is the best of many worlds,” she says. “I get the fantastic experience of having a smart, well-behaved, calm dog with me almost everywhere I go and at the same time get to prepare him for a very valuable service. These guide dogs are life-changing for a visually impaired person.”
Raising guide dog puppies has become Dawson’s ministry, she says. The mission to become the best guide dog he can be, however, is Rebel’s. As Dawson puts it, “He’s a Rebel with a cause!”