Leading the visually impaired towards more confidence and independence

By: 
Kaity Coisman

PESHTIGO – International Lions Club project Leader Dog for the Blind brings heightened independence and companionship to the visually impaired community. As a 100% philanthropically funded organization, Leader Dogs believes everyone with vision loss deserves access to the services they need to travel safely and confidently.

The life of a puppy raiser

Debi Delie from Howard-Suamico is a 12-year puppy raiser and puppy counselor. Delie gave a Leader Dog presentation to the Niagara Lions Club in February to share the journey of applying for a guide dog and how the animal can impact the owner’s life. A puppy raiser is a volunteer who raises a puppy for either a year or six months. A puppy counselor is a puppy raiser who has raised multiple puppies and now heads a group of other puppy raisers, including monthly meetings going over different skills.

“We do all the basic obedience training. Sit, stay, down, how to walk on a leash, how to greet people nicely without jumping and stuff like that, but one of our biggest things is to socialize our dogs so our dogs go just about every place that we go so that when they do go to a visually impaired person they know what it is like,” explained Delie.

After six months or a year, the pups are returned to Leader Dogs for ‘Leader Dog University’ as coined by the puppy raisers and councilors. Delie explained although returning the puppy is sad, it is easier knowing they can change someone’s life. However, puppy raisers have a t-shirt saying, ‘Inside every leader dog beats the heart of a puppy raiser’ because “every puppy takes a part of your heart with them when they go,” shared Delie.

Every puppy raiser starts volunteering in the program for personal motivations, but Delie’s was the service dog that aided her along her journey in and out of a wheelchair for 26 years. The organization that provided Delie with her service animal was too far away for her to raise an animal for them, so she turned to Leader Dog.

Delie also collects old and new uncut deer and elk antlers for puppy raisers across the United States to give back to other puppy raisers. Antlers are popular chew toys among puppy raisers because they don’t splinter or break, but they are an expensive online purchase. As a puppy raiser can spend $1,200 per puppy, Delie has taken it upon herself to become the unofficial antler collector for Leader Dog volunteers. To donate antlers to Leader Dog, bring the antlers to a local Lions Club and they will get them to Delie.

The Life of a Leader Dog

With their breeding program, $15 million training facility, partnership with nine other training programs and aging out programs, Leader Dogs receive top-of-the-line treatment from day one.

The Leader Dog breeding program only allows females to deliver four litters, but there is a constant evaluation to ensure the longevity of the dog’s life. Females and males part of the breeding program will always be with their host families besides a three-day stay in the ‘honeymoon suite’ coined by Leader Dog personnel. Puppies are also raised in homes instead of kennels before their delivery to puppy raisers.

‘Leader Dog University’ is a $15 million k-9 center geared toward dogs. “They have villages just so the dogs stay with the same group of dogs, and if they want to sleep in the same kennel, they can do that. If they want to play in groups, they can do that. It’s all based on keeping the dogs happy,” explained Delie.

Guide dogs are the highest level of service dogs and, therefore, one of the hardest levels of training for a puppy. If a puppy isn’t suited to becoming a guide dog, Leader Dog is partnered with nine other agencies to place dogs. “They may go on to work with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. They may work in law enforcement. They may work in the court advocacy program where they go into courtrooms with children and women who have to testify in front of their abusers or whatever they are going to court for,” explained Delie. If there are puppies that don’t complete any programs, then there is a list of families signed up to take them home. There is also a waiting list for retired dogs aged out of the program and couldn’t be kept.

The Leader Dog impact

Anyone interested in applying for a Leader Dog can contact their local Lions Club, and they can help with the application process and getting an applicant connected.

“What people don’t realize is the clients that come to Leader Dog and receive training; they pay nothing,” explained Delie. Leader Dog doesn’t charge for puppy training, services, transportation or travel. Leader Dog will also provide services to people who have just lost their sight or lost sight later in life. Programs also include cane training, orientation and mobility training for these clients.

People who receive a guide dog receive the name and contact information of their puppy raiser and can choose to contact them if desired. One of Delie’s favorite stories of a Leader Dog making a difference was a dog that won Service Dog Hero of the Year. Delie disclosed, “Her dog changed her life around. She went from this quite shy person who never went out and did things to this person who can get up and speak in front of 250-300 people and travel on a plane.” This heightened independence and confidence are values a Leader Dog can provide to their new owners.

For more information about Leader Dogs for the Blind, go to their website at www.leaderdog.org or contact your local Lions Club.

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