Lion March 2014 : Page 24

Leader of the Pack Founded 76 years ago, Leader Dogs continues to enrich the lives of the blind-thanks in large part to Lions. by Anne Ford

Top Dog

Anne Ford

Leader of the Pack

Founded 76 years ago, Leader Dogs continues to enrich the lives of the blind-thanks in large part to Lions.

Gretchen Preston, warm and quick to smile, is a happily married woman from Chocolay Township in Michigan. But that didn’t stop the visually impaired children’s book author from going on what she calls “the ultimate blind date” a few months ago.

Mr. Preston can rest easy: His wife’s “date”—a sleek, amiable black Labrador retriever named Floyd—was a perfect gentleman.

“He just came in and gave me a big lick, like, ‘Hi, Mom, here I am,’” Preston (shown on page 29) remembers of her first meeting with Floyd, a trained guide dog who was given to her by Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “It was so heartwarming; I wept with happiness. It was like meeting your true love.”

Floyd is just one of the more than 14,500 guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired that Leader Dogs has bred, trained, and donated since 1938. Started by three Detroit-area Lions club members, the nonprofit serves clients from 21 countries and nearly every U.S. state. Clients meet and learn to work with their dogs over the course of a 26-day stay at Leader Dogs’ residential campus, aided by professional instructors who help them practice maneuvering in everyday situations, from navigating an escalator to crossing a crowded street.

Meticulously bred for temperament, intelligence and good health and trained from birth to act as calm, trustworthy and helpful guides to people with low or no vision, Leader Dogs are much, much more than particularly well-behaved animals. Their potential to change the lives of the people they assist is so great it is almost unquantifiable.

“When you give a person mobility, the change in their lives is just tremendous,” says Bill Hansen, a Leader Dogs volunteer and past president of the Rochester Lions Club. He remembers one long-ago client who, at the time he received his first Leader Dog, was overweight, lonely, and living on welfare. The instructor who worked with him told him, “If you want this dog to change your life, it can.” By the time the client’s dog retired seven or eight years later and he returned to Leader Dogs for another one, he had gotten married, found work, and begun running marathons.

And then there’s the less dramatic, but certainly no less welcome, change that Floyd has brought about in Preston’s life: “I’ll never get lost in my own yard again,” she says happily. “‘Floyd, find the door.’ That’s all I have to say.”

It’s an unseasonably warm late-autumn day, and half a dozen leashed-and-harnessed Labradors and their human companions are waiting quietly outside Detroit’s Greektown Casino. (About 60 percent of Leader Dogs are Labradors, who are favored for their people-pleasing personalities and easy-to-groom coats.)

The nearby street is a large, noisy one, and whenever car horns squawk—as they seem to do every minute—the dogs look calmly toward the sound, but don’t startle or bark. In case of passers-by who might be tempted to stroke or talk to (read: distract) these beautiful canines, some of them wear signs that politely state, “Do not pet me. I am working.”

These students—dogs and humans alike—are waiting their turns to practice one of the most important lessons they’ll learn during their time at Leader Dogs: how to navigate an urban environment filled with cars, texting pedestrians, flapping pigeons, litter, construction and unexpected noises.

One client, Steve Speidel (shown on page 28) of Lincoln, Nebraska, has just finished walking his dog, Johan, through the casino itself. Speidel, a member of the Lincoln Star City Lions Club, has owned several guide dogs before and prizes their professionalism while on the job. “They’re all business,” he says. A Leader Dog, for example, is trained never to use the bathroom while in harness (of course, their owners are trained to give them plenty of potty breaks). Having Johan means Speidel can make his daily 40-minute commute to work by bus alone, rather than relying on a ride from someone else.

Another client, Lucy Hahn, has come from Madison, Wisconsin, to meet her Leader dog, Charlotte. A friendly Lab who walks with an endearing prance, Charlotte is so outgoing and affable than Hahn has dubbed her “the Mary Tyler Moore of dogs.”

Still, even the most sociable canine can be overwhelmed in a busy setting, and Leader Dogs instructor Jill Bani, a bubbly redhead with striking blue eyes, wants to make sure that the pair can handle a bustling environment like this one. She takes Hahn and Charlotte on a brisk stroll, Charlotte walking a few paces ahead to ensure that she—not the visually impaired person she’s leading—will be the first to encounter an obstacle.

Charlotte performs with poise, head up and tail wagging, never once leaning down to sniff at something on the ground. After several blocks, they come to a shady, rumbly underpass. “She hasn’t walked under there before, and it sounds echoey, and it’s kind of dark,” Bani tells Hahn. “So when she’s anxious, we are . . . ?”

“Brave,” Hahn says.

“And you are,” Bani replies firmly.

After the two sail beneath the underpass like pros, Hahn tells Charlotte, “Find the curb,” and the dog immediately complies, earning them both a “Nice ninja move!” from Bani. And that’s before Charlotte successfully leads Hahn across six lanes of traffic divided by a median.

Much as the dog looks like she knows where she’s going, she doesn’t. It’s Hahn who has to constantly stay oriented by keeping track of where and when they’ve turned and how far they’ve walked. Since a dog can’t read a traffic signal, Hahn must also listen to traffic patterns to determine when it’s safe to cross a street (though if she tries to walk in front of a moving car, the dog will prevent her).

In fact, to be eligible to receive a Leader Dog, clients must submit a video demonstrating that they are able to travel independently. As the instructors are quick to remind their clients: “You’re still the brains of the operation.”

The next day, the client-dog teams practice their skills in a different area—a busy residential neighborhood where pet dogs bark from yards, tree branches overhang the sidewalks and squirrels scamper over lawns. Today, instead of accompanying the teams, the instructors observe quietly, muttering into the walkie-talkies they carry to keep each other appraised of the clients’ locations (“Bud has made the turn”).

Back at the facility, it’s time for distraction training. The clients and their dogs stand around the periphery of a conference room as instructors bounce balls, jiggle containers of treats and squeeze squeaky toys, all to allow the dogs to practice keeping their focus and following commands in the face of disturbances. A golden retriever named Jethro can’t resist lunging for a basketball, while the dogs of several international students from Spanish-speaking countries are most distracted by a plastic lizard on a string. With enough practice (and praise), they’ll quickly learn to ignore these and other temptations.

Not a single one of these or any other Leader Dogs clients pays a dime: not for their transportation to and from the Leader Dogs facility, not for their lodging or meals, and not for the rigorously bred and trained dog that will make such a difference in their lives. That’s all the more impressive given that Leader Dogs receives no federal, state or local funding: It operates entirely on donations from individuals and organizations—including the $2 million given annually by nearly 5,000 Lions clubs. Lions provide nearly 20 percent of Leader Dogs’ funding. Yet that figure significantly understates Lions’ role because Lions promote Leader Dogs, drive clients to and from the airport and provide other hands-on support.

Lions also have been central to Leader Dogs since day one. “It was 100 percent Lions’ money and support that started Leader Dogs,” says past president Hansen. The organization began life in 1938, when a blind member of the Uptown Lions of Detroit, Glenn Wheeler, was unable to attend what was then the only existing guide dog school in the country. In response, three of his fellow Lions decided to start a school of their own, which they called the Lions Leader Dogs Foundation. By the following year, the venture had grown so successful that a small farm was leased to house it. (The organization changed its name in 1940, dropping the word “Lions” as part of an effort to diversify its base of support.)

Leader Dogs is one of the leaders of the pack, so to speak. The United States has about 15 guide dog organizations; Leader Dogs is one of the three largest. It’s also an innovator. It’s the only guide dog school that gives out free GPS devices and dedicates a program for the deaf-blind.

One might assume with advancing technology guide dogs are falling from favor. That’s not true at all. Demand for dogs has remained steady through the decades. Guide dog users prefer a dog because a dog can take a person around an obstacle instead of just detecting it. They’re safer than a white cane because they’re trained to not let their owners walk into the path of a car. Perhaps most of all, a dog provides companionship. They are friendly, loyal and lovable.

More than 75 years after the school’s founding, the Doberman pinschers once favored as guide dogs have given way to Labradors, golden retrievers, and German shepherds. Where the original farmhouse once rested now sits a 14-acre, multi-building complex that includes offices, a kennel, a veterinary clinic and, allowing clients realistic practice runs with their dogs, a fake street complete with a sidewalk, a simulated road with a manhole cover and simulated cross walks. The residence center includes private rooms, lounges, a dog-grooming station, a library with books on tape and in Braille, a cafeteria and a workout center. Visitors during the warmer months can often watch puppies gambol about in an outdoor play area, tripping now and then over their chubby paws.

Even at that age, they’re preparing to become Leader Dogs, says Bev Blanchard, the businesslike but also maternal manager of canine development. For the first six weeks of their lives, the puppies—who are bred from Leader Dog’s own stock—live at the facility, where they get used to being handled, undergo gentle neurological stimulation exercises that make them more resistant to stress, and learn (among other things) that they won’t be picked up or fed until they sit. “We’re teaching them, ‘Life doesn’t happen at your speed,’” Blanchard explains.

They are then given to volunteer puppy raisers (often Lions), who teach the dogs basic obedience and self-control, exposing them to as many different environments as possible along the way. After 12 to 15 months, the canines return to Leader Dogs for four months of guide dog training. Only about 48 percent of them will successfully complete the training and go on to become guide dogs. The rest will either become service dogs in some other capacity (such as therapy dogs) or become adopted as pets.

Interestingly, the puppies with the highest success rate are those who have been raised not in private homes, but in prisons. About a decade ago, Leader Dogs began its Inmate Puppy Raiser program, which has seen tremendous success. Not only do 65 percent of the puppies raised by inmates succeed as Leader Dogs, but the recidivism rate for prisoners who participate in the program is very low. “To us, they’re puppy-raisers, not inmates,” says Blanchard.

In addition to its dogs for the blind and visually impaired, Leader Dogs also provides guide dogs to deaf-blind clients, who communicate with their dogs using hand signals and American Sign Language. The organization also provides clients with a Trekker Breeze or Kapten PLUS handheld talking GPS device. Then, too, it helps people gain the independent travel skills they need to be eligible to receive a Leader Dog.

One of those is client David Medlock of Oklahoma, who’s enrolled in Leader Dogs’ one-week orientation and mobility, or O&M program. Medlock, whose thick-assyrup accent gives away his Southern small-town roots, is standing on a quiet residential road with instructor A.J. Walker, practicing his cane skills in an environment that closely resembles that of his small home town.

Medlock, 60, lost nearly all of his sight to a progressive genetic disease several years ago. Until his wife passed away about a year previously, he hadn’t realized how much he’d relied on her to get around. “I knew she was helping me a lot, but I thought I was better off than what I was,” he says. Reluctant to rely on his adult children for assistance, he’d like to get a Leader Dog so that he can get out and about more on his own: “I’m not an inside, stay-put person. I like to feel the air and go places.”

Before he’s eligible for a dog, however, he has to improve his independent travel skills. With Walker’s help, he’s learned to standardize his pace so he can tell how far he’s traveled, avoid veering off course by hitting the grass line with his cane on every step and maintain his alignment by squaring his feet up to the back of the curb before crossing the street. The cane allows him to detect obstacles, so that he can use his remaining vision to look ahead at eye level.

“You’re cruising,” Walker tells him after he’s successfully and safely walked the length of the street by himself. “You’re trusting the cane as an extension of yourself. This is A-plus work!”

“I don’t know about the cruising part,” Medlock says. But he sets off again, smiling.

Leader Dogs To Expand

Beginning in August 2014, Leader Dogs’ kennels will undergo a $14.5-million renovation. The goal: to replace the current kennels, which are 20-plus years old, with facilities that more closely resemble the home environments in which the dogs will spend most of their lives. The new kennels will feature larger cages, as well as room layouts that will allow the dogs to see more of their surroundings. One aspect won't change: the two elderly, utterly imperturbable kennel kitties, whose (usually soporific) presence allows the dogs to get used to cats.

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