SF State News {University Communications}

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Unique guide dog program set for expansion

March 19, 2008 -- When a visually impaired person starts using a guide dog they can look forward to increased independence and a new canine companion -- but not before they have undergone a month of intensive training. The University's Special Education Department, together with the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, is preparing the professionals who train both visually impaired clients and guide dogs.

Photo of student Wendy Mellberg Haecker as she hugs Carnegie, one of the guide dogs she is training.

Student Wendy Mellberg Haecker with trainee guide dog, Carnegie.

The program is the first university-based program of its kind in the world. "The International Guide Dog Federation set goals to upgrade the training of instructors by 2010, and we were the first to rise to the challenge," said Sandra Rosen, professor of special education and coordinator of the guide dog mobility program.

Rosen devised a joint curriculum with Guide Dogs for the Blind. She upgraded their existing training program to include classes on working with clients with multiple disabilities and cultural diversity. The course was also enriched with aspects of orientation and mobility, the sister discipline to guide dog mobility. Students can gain a graduate level certificate in guide dog mobility or a master's degree in Special Education with an emphasis in guide dog mobility.

The program graduated its first student in 2007, and three more will graduate this summer. Wendy Mellberg Haecker is one of them. "I knew I wanted to get an advanced degree that would enable me to work with animals in an interactive way, but I never imagined I would find a masters course in this field," Mellberg Haecker said. She has a bachelors in wildlife management and was previously a seabird researcher for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mellberg Haecker spends weekdays at the Guide Dogs for the Blind headquarters in San Rafael and attends classes at SF State during evenings and weekends. "Being a trainer is physically very demanding," she said. "It's harder than it looks. The dogs each have their own personalities and you have to be outside with them whatever the weather. But it's very rewarding, especially when you see your clients 'graduating' with their new dog."

Photo of Professor Sandra Rosen.

Sandra Rosen, professor of special education.

"It's been wonderful to see the program grow," Rosen said. "We now have eight students in San Francisco. It may not sound like a lot but due to the nature of this intensive training, it requires a low student-teacher ratio."

In fall 2007, the program began offering courses at the second Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in Boring, Ore., where students gain practical training from local instructors, take SF State courses through distance learning and receive mentoring support from Rosen.

Now in its third year of operation, Rosen plans to extend the program to students across the U.S. and abroad. "We are planning a distance education curriculum for guide dog mobility instructors overseas," Rosen said. "We hope to have the first modules available in September 2008. We are also working with out-of-state guide dog training schools in the U.S. to explore how we can make our existing graduate certificate available to them through distance learning."

For more information, visit the Web site of the Guide Dog Mobility Program.

-- Elaine Bible


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