By Ashley Nunnelly, Guide Dog Mobility Instructor
Before joining Leader Dog, I worked for three years in the puppy department at another guide dog organization, hoping to pay my dues and eventually be considered for an apprenticeship position. I never dreamed that I would move from sunny, warm, fried chicken and home cooking Georgia to the frigid Midwest for my dream job.
Becoming an apprentice guide dog mobility instructor for Leader Dog isn’t an easy task. After passing two rounds of phone interviews, I flew to cold, cold Michigan for a long day of whirlwind testing experience. One question: HOW do you choose what to wear to look professional for an interview while working with dogs? The perfect shoes alone are an enigma.
In advance of my arrival, I prepared a presentation to teach someone a new skill of my choice. My previous boss talked me out of my original idea, “How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse,” so I created a slideshow with videos of me working with a dog on training food refusal with positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. It turned out there wasn’t a way to play the presentation. I did my best under pressure and used some lovely and verbose descriptions of what my carefully crafted videos would have looked like. Somehow, I made it through that excruciating ten minutes.
After that there was a dog working section. Two members of management and a guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI) gave brief instructions and then watched me complete an obedience routine with a dog. Then I ate lunch with clients, attended a report writing segment, shadowed part of class and observed a training route with a GDMI. I attended both an individual and a panel interview with four people who asked TOUGH questions. Working on the training staff at Leader Dog involves a high level of teamwork and togetherness. Ensuring that a new candidate is a good fit for the team is of paramount importance.
After an apprentice candidate completes a similar interview process to mine and accepts the position, he or she is greeted on their first day by Team Supervisor Sebastian McPherson, who oversees all apprentices. The first month is spent working with the dog care team members to understand how the dogs are cared for during their time in-for-training. The second month is spent shadowing teams in each stage of training and class and bringing a shared string of three dogs through the first stage of training, the foundations stage. The apprentice also receives one-on-one training from Sebastian learning the basics of guide dog specific training.
Next, the apprentice is put on a training team and paired with a mentor. The mentor is the point person along with Sebastian for training instructions, questions and concerns related to clients and dogs. The apprentice goes into their “observation class” and shadows their mentor and other team members as they work with clients. This allows the apprentice to get an in-depth view of the realities of and what the final goal of a Leader Dog looks like.
Next the apprentice is assigned four dogs to work with and two clients for their first class—all closely observed by their mentor. Three clients are assigned in the second class, and for the following classes apprentices are at full capacity with four clients.
Throughout all three years of the apprenticeship, there are online learning modules to be done, field visits and agency visits to observe and conduct, workshops put on by the orientation & mobility department and an immersive three-day blindfold experience.
The apprenticeship is specifically geared to set learners up for success with gradually increasing responsibility and decreasing mentor support. Though eventually “onboarding” ends, the piece that keeps every apprentice/GDMI hooked on this job is that the learning never stops. Every dog is different; every client is different; every match is different. From my perspective, I’m grateful to Leader Dog for taking the chance on me from a stressful interview process, investing time and resources into my education, and allowing me to work at my dream job.
Ashley is pictured above with a group of clients and Leader Dogs whom she helped to instruct. She is top right, standing in the back row.