At One CU It's People Helping Dogs Help People

Register now

EL SEGUNDO, Calif.-Brea is neither an employee nor a member of Xceed Financial Credit Union, but she has spent every other day for the past several months in the main office learning important skills that someday will yield invaluable assistance to someone in need.

Brea is a "puppy in training" for Guide Dogs of America. She spends her days at the CU under the watchful eye of Pam McKenzie, a financial consultant for $764-million Xceed Financial. McKenzie and her husband are "puppy raisers" for GDA, a non-profit organization based in Sylmar, Calif.

The goal of puppy training, McKenzie told Credit Union Journal, is to socialize potential guide dogs in as many situations as possible. If the dogs are approved to enter formal training at 18 months, they might assist blind persons if they pass a difficult series of examinations.

Brea came to McKenzie when the puppy was just eight weeks old. McKenzie said the credit union environment is just one of several that Brea is confronted with to ensure she has the proper temperament to be a guide dog. McKenzie's husband, David, takes Brea to his construction job part of the week.

Access Not Required, But Allowed By Xceed

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires privately owned businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals-defined by the ADA as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability"-on the premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. However, because puppies-in-training are not yet guide dogs, each state has a different allowance. In some states, even though the puppies wear ID jackets and the puppy raisers carry proper credentials, "We can technically be asked to leave an establishment with our puppy-in-training," said Judy Reilly, a volunteer and speaker program coordinator for GDA. "But generally, when we explain what we're doing in terms of socialization and training of these puppies, we don't have a lot of problems."

According to McKenzie, she was upfront about her puppy raising duties prior to being hired by Xceed. She said management has been extremely supportive. "They really bent over backwards for me. First, management allows me to bring Brea to work at the corporate offices. Everyone has gone out of their way to help, which is great because the Americans with Disabilities Act does not cover puppies in training. If someone complains, we have to remove the dog. But everyone at our office really likes her."

Gina Chiri-Osmond, the CU's senior communications manager, told Credit Union Journal, "Xceed encourages our associates to do volunteer work, so we did bend over backwards for Pam and Brea."

Credit Union Journal: How does your and Brea's day go at Xceed? Does Brea interact with members, or just staff?
McKenzie: In my office she has a blanket that she lays on. That's her spot and she has toys. She loves to meet members when they come in to the credit union and has several friends that visit her regularly. She is a good ambassador for the credit union because she loves people.

Her training is to socialize with people more than anything, because she will be with a blind person around the clock. She needs to be around people and noises. When I go to lunch she goes with me. She also goes to seminars with me.

She needs breaks during the day so we walk around the credit union. She is trained to go to the bathroom on command on any surface, because the blind person is going to need the dog to do that on command. Dogs take a different body position for urinating or defecating, and the blind person has to feel this by touch. So I put my hands on Brea while she is relieving herself so she gets used to someone's hand being on her at that time.

She has a yellow vest that says "Guide Dogs of America Puppy in Training." A lot of people don't realize they aren't supposed to pet a working dog, so I'm training them, as well.

The dogs are trained to react in a certain way-they are not allowed to jump up on people, for example-so it is important she not get too excited just because someone walks up to pet her. When they are in jackets they have to know they are working, and when she goes home at night we take the jacket off. They associate the difference. In a blind person's house they don't work all the time; they do get play time. Brea is 14 months old and is scheduled to go back to GDA for formal training. She could become a breeder or a guide dog. We won't know until right before her turn-in date, which normally is at 18 months.

CUJ: Was there any negative reaction when you first brought Brea to work? Or were people happy to have her there from the beginning?
McKenzie: She has been a star since she was a puppy. A lot of people are afraid of dogs, such as a girl at the branch. Usually this is because they got bitten as a child. But because Brea is so well-behaved, they aren't afraid of her. People know she is not going to be violent. And the girl who was afraid of Brea now stops by to pet her.

CUJ: Will she be a good guide dog?
McKenzie: She is very smart and very independent, which they need to be. There are situations where the dog must be disobedient to a blind person, such as if there is a dangerous situation the blind person doesn't know about. One guide dog saved a blind person from walking into an empty elevator shaft when the person repeatedly ordered the dog to move. The dog needs to be an independent thinker.

Only about 25% of puppies actually become guide dogs because at some point through the process the dog might not be happy doing the work or too hyper. This usually comes out during the formal training.

CUJ: Talk about what specific skills Brea learns from being in the credit union environment.
McKenzie: It is about exposing her to different situations. We don't do the actual guide dog training with a harness, as they would with a blind person. We are charged with teaching them basic obedience while having a good puppy life.

We make sure they know how to react in different situations. She goes with me to the doctor's office, to family events and to the grocery store. If something scares them or bothers them we need to report it so Guide Dogs of America knows.

We introduce dogs to the trash man and the mail carrier, so Brea doesn't bark when the trash truck or mail truck comes. We socialize the dogs to make sure these things are not a problem. It is a lot of fun but it is a lot of work. Sometimes it can be daunting, especially when they are little and you have to take them out every half hour-that makes it hard at work!

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
MORE FROM AMERICAN BANKER