Despite the barks and yips one may hear periodically emanating from the handsome seven-acre campus in the San Fernando Valley, this is no zoo. Quite the opposite. The Sylmar home of Guide Dogs of America (GDA) is a well-oiled union machine, albeit one that can boast some pretty adorable moving parts.
The full-service GDA campus is many things: a school, a kennel, a vet and a training facility. For six 21-day cycles throughout the year, it’s where visually impaired students live as they work and train with their new companions. And of course, there are puppies here. Lots and lots of puppies.
GDA owes a portion of its success to the generosity of hundreds of volunteers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). The organization’s approximately 45 full time staff are all members of IAMAW, the organization that helped found GDA in 1948.
“Everyone here is union, top to bottom,” said GDA President Russell Gittlen, a former IAMAW business agent and shop steward. “They have the contract, the pension, health care, paid days off and so forth. It’s the gold standard of employment.”
It’s a diverse crew that makes the GDA engine run. In addition to the administration, GDA has a department for breeding, IT, facilities and maintenance, the kennel supervision, training department, the veterinary department and – of course – the puppy department. Many employees bring their own (non-working) dogs to work, and both volunteers and staff often serve as puppy raisers.
The puppy raisers are tasked with taking home an 8-week old puppy and getting it acclimated to elements of everyday life that a future client may face, like busses, post offices or grocery stores. Ten months later, the puppy raiser brings the dog back to GDA where the training for service can commence.
Pups are being bred and whelped regularly at GDA. The organization often uses golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers as well as German shepherds. But not every dog who goes through the training will make it through the program. Given GDA’s rigorous standards and desire to create a perfect match for its students, it’s no accident that the graduating dogs who end up paired with clients are called “the astronauts of service dogs.”
Not only are GDA dogs their client’s eyes and first line of defense, they are allowed to disobey a command – no easy thing for a dog to do – if they determine that it could put their human at risk. They also have to pass a battery of training and medical tests.
Those who pass are the elites. Clients from all over the country come to the GDA campus and spend three weeks on the campus training with their person. The dogs and training are provided to clients free of charge. It’s part of a service that IAMAW has helped make possible for more than 70 years, since member Joseph Jones Sr. turned to his union for help after he became blind.
Seeking assistance, Jones was turned down by existing schools, so he decided to help found one himself and the IAMAW Executive Council got behind their brother.
“In 1946, the Executive Council of the IAM officially recognized International Guiding Eyes [which would change its name to Guide Dogs of America in 1992] and put the full strength of nearly half a million members at his disposal,” wrote former IAMAW International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger in the foreword to GDA’s history written by Patrick S. Halley (2012). “Brothers and sisters from across the United States and Canada immediately embraced this as our signature charity because it captures the very spirit of trade union solidarity: where we look out for our own and do everything we possibly can to help those in society who are less fortunate.”
In May, Labor 411 was pleased to present Guide Dogs of America with its Buy Blue Ribbon Award presented to a socially responsible organization for recognizing the importance of sustainable jobs and for fostering a positive relationship with organized labor and helping to build a stronger community.