With a blindfold over her eyes, Rachel Chamness (Advertising/Public Relations, ’11) walks in downtown Portland, Oregon, led by a guide dog who has just finished three months of training. This test—to safely assist Rachel for forty-five minutes—is one of five final tests that prove whether or not Rachel’s training has effectively prepared the dog for a very important job—to assist an individual who is legally blind.
As a guide dog mobility instructor for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), Rachel works with a string of four dogs at a time, taking them through a rigorous training program. Once the dogs have finished their training, clients as young as teenagers come from all over the United States and Canada to meet their potential match and learn how to work with a guide dog. Putting her public relations studies to good use, Rachel assists with many parts of the process—from working the dogs and educating clients to visiting graduates in their homes.
“There’s just something about dogs that has the ability to bring people together,” Rachel said. In her current position, Rachel’s passion for animals has enabled her desire to help people on a personal basis.
When I first started on my career journey here at GDB, I assumed my favorite part of my job would be working with the dogs,” Rachel said. “However, over the years, I have become aware that God has placed me in a position of opportunity to influence and affect a complete stranger’s life.
Rachel’s journey with GDB started long before she began her education at PCC. In fact, Rachel began raising puppies for GDB when she was in the eighth grade. Through her commitment to raise a puppy into a dog ready to enter formal guide dog training, Rachel realized that working with guide dogs was something she wanted to do long term. Rachel also understood the value of a solid college education, so once she finished high school, she moved to Pensacola to study advertising/public relations, a degree she considered practical whether she returned to GDB or not.
To gain more experience at GDB, Rachel spent her winter and summer breaks volunteering at the nonprofit organization, helping wherever needed. After graduation, she began a three-year apprenticeship program at GDB that led to her current position.
Guide dog mobility instructors such as Rachel spend hours working the guide dogs, who are mostly Labradors and golden retrievers, in a variety of settings, training them to obey on command, lead on walks, and respond to positive reinforcement for good behavior. Once these dogs are ready, clients come to Boring, Oregon, for two weeks of lectures and hands-on experience working the dogs.
However, the support does not end once clients take their guide dogs home: Rachel and several of her coworkers travel across North America to offer one-on-one assistance to graduates in their homes.
During the past several years, Rachel has used her college education in a special way—communicating with others. “I relate on a daily basis to the general public, GDB staff, and clients. Having excellent interpersonal relationship skills is crucial in any job really, but especially in this job as client instruction relies heavily on verbal instruction,” Rachel said. “I feel upon graduating from PCC that . . . my education prepared me to excel in this field of work God has graciously allowed me to be in.”
This coming June, Rachel will celebrate her seventh year as an employee for GDB.
It truly is difficult to choose a favorite part about my job,” Rachel said. “I thoroughly enjoy watching the dogs comprehend new concepts through positive reinforcement training methods. They are so eager to learn, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
While working with the dogs is fun in and of itself, Rachel recognizes her job has a very distinct privilege. She said, “Building relationships with the clients I get to work with makes the hard work with the dogs so worthwhile.”