Michal Anna Padilla, director of training at Guide Dogs of the Desert, is a licensed guide dog mobility instructor.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EMILY SANDIFER
It was May, the heart of graduation season. The stage was set at the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Center for a celebration of achievement, a recognition of hard work. The auditorium was filled with loved ones.
This was a small class, only six students. Twelve, if you count the dogs. But it was the start of a new chapter all the same.
It was the first in-person graduation for Guide Dogs of the Desert since 2019; the COVID pandemic halted the festivities for two years. This event also kicked off of the organization’s 50th anniversary year.
Student Deon Upshaw and his standard poodle, Leo, were last to the stage. Upshaw was emotional as he gestured to his dog, saying they had quickly become an inseparable pair. Then he broke out into song, crooning the Billy Preston classic, “You Are So Beautiful.”
“Can’t you see? You’re everything I hoped for, everything I need …”
This is exactly what Guide Dogs of the Desert does — helps visually impaired people like Upton find independence and companionship through custom-trained dogs like Leo.
Founded in 1972 by the late Lafayette “Bud” Maynard in his home, Guide Dogs of the Desert expanded in 1975 to a two-bedroom house in Whitewater that remains part of the facility today. The campus has since grown to include a student dormitory, a dog wellness center, kennels, a puppy nursery, and spaces for training.
Now an accredited guide dog school, one of only 14 in the country, Guide Dogs of the Desert breeds, raises, and trains all its dogs on site. Having everything in one location helps the puppies begin their guide dog journey in a comfortable, stress-free environment, and it means the organization gets to know each dog well, which helps in pairing them with their people.
“I loved that what they did was customize the dogs for us,” Upshaw says. “They took the time to make these dogs our partners.”
It’s a partnership that begins long before the visually impaired ever meet their dogs.
“I talk about it like matchmaking,” says Tim Hindman, the former director of client programs. “This is not one size fits all. It’s not like buying a dog off Amazon. A lot of care goes into finding the right dog for the right student.”
Students come to Guide Dogs of the Desert from all over the country and must already have some orientation and mobility skills. They’re people who can walk around their home or community with the use of a cane, or travel to work using public transportation.
“Our students have mobility, they have destinations, they have active lifestyles,” says Michal Anna Padilla, director of training. “We look at who these people are, see what their household is like, and determine what their needs are.”
Guide Dogs of the Desert raises Labrador retrievers and is one of the few schools to also raise standard poodles, which are a hypoallergenic breed. Puppies between 8 to 12 weeks go to volunteer puppy raisers, who spend 18 months with their playful new friend, before the dogs are matched with a visually impaired person and enter another stage of training. Beyond learning to move together through complexities like subway platforms, pedestrians, obstacles, airports, and traffic, it’s also when the human learns more about their new companion.
“It’s a lot of work,” Padilla says. “You know, a cane doesn’t throw up.”
As the organization embarks on its 50th year, it is under new direction and with an expanded vision for the future. Robert Maher, who has had a longtime career in philanthropy, took the helm early this year and doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.
“It is truly a bond that forms between the student and the dog, because it has to be,” Maher says. “They are trusting their lives to these dogs.”
Guide Dogs of the Desert recently entered into a partnership with Braille Institute Coachella Valley. Under the new arrangement, Braille Institute will give students the foundational skills needed to increase their independence, then refer qualified students to Guide Dogs.
The organization has also launched a canine support program, in which trained pups that do not make the cut to be guide dogs are matched with law enforcement departments around the country to be used for emotional support.
That’s how the newest member of the U.S. Capitol Police force came to be Lila, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever. After losing three officers in the line of duty in 2021, Lila was dispatched to the force to help distressed officers.
“Dogs instantly console us, and they don’t judge. They’re like, ‘I want to make your day better,’” says retired police captain Coby Webb, of Cherry Valley, who founded the Support K9 Program and matches dogs with law enforcement departments. “There’s no limit to the difference these dogs make.”
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