Let me start off by saying, I can NOT say enough good things about Leader Dogs for the Blind. They are located in Rochester, Michigan and are truly a first class operation. They are wonderful!!! I have now had two dogs from them, and while I thought my second dog couldn't be anywhere near as good as my first one... she is.
Many people don't know what goes into a Leader Dog. Leader Dogs for the Blind (LBD) breed almost exclusively their own dogs. They have mainly Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. Occasionally they will work with a standard poodle for the student who has severe dog allergies. Once the puppies are born, they remain with the mom, in a host home until they are six weeks old. At that point, the puppies are brought from the host home, back to LDB where they are placed with puppy raisers. Each puppy raiser family is a volunteer family who volunteers to raise a puppy for a year, teaching it basic obedience training and socialization. The puppy raisers have the opportunity to name the puppy that will hopefully, one day, be turned over to a visually impaired person. When the puppy turns one year old, it is returned to LDB where it gets an extensive physical. Only healthy pups with no physical conditions make it through to the dog training program. All of the puppies who do not make the program due to health issues are adopted out... imagine the waiting list for these well-trained, super socialized pups!
Once the dog gets a clean bill of health, the real training begins for these dogs. They are worked daily, for five to six month by the dog trainers. If you are ever out and about on the streets of Rochester, Michigan, you will likely see these dog / trainer pairs, working the streets of Rochester. They work downtown, in shopping malls, in stores... all over the place. I used to live in Rochester and would see them walking dogs in neighborhoods and throughout the city. These trainers are dedicated people! I give them a TON of credit. They work for the sole purpose of helping others. The skills that they teach these dogs are just amazing.
After six months of formal training by the dog trainers, they are evaluated for their use as Leader Dogs. Some don't make the cut - if they are too nervous, aggressive, respond to sounds or just plain don't demonstrate a desire to work, they don't make it through the program. Again, these dogs are adopted out to waiting families. Only the best, healthiest dogs make it through the program to be issued as a Leader Dog Companion.
This is where I come in the picture. After completing an application with Leader Dogs for the Blind, and after being approved for a Dog then the fun begins. The talented staff evaluate the needs of the person requesting a dog, and consider the dogs available for issue at the time, and an appropriate match is made. I'm not sure how they do it, but they are extremely successful with their matching process. I was fortunate enough, this year, to have the opportunity to train with LDB in their "spring training" program. They have established (for the second year) a program which allows people from southern states to train in West Palm Beach, Florida. Rather than traveling up to the cold weather of Michigan, I was given the opportunity to train in West Palm Beach with my new dog. The matches between dog and client were made in Rochester, and the dogs were transported down to Florida. Some flew down with trainers, while others rode down with volunteers and/or trainers.
Upon arrival in WPB, I was almost immediately issued my dog. I was so thrilled when I was introduced to "Chara". Chara is a female yellow lab who looks very much like my Pearl. Chara was the only yellow lab of the six pups that were brought to WPB. In addition to Chara, there were four black labs and one golden retriever. The other dogs were: Cricket (female black lab), Kara (female black lab), Driver (male black lab), Zeus (male black lab) and Major (golden retriever). Each dog made a perfect compliment to their new handler.
After being matched with our dogs, we worked morning and afternoon with the dogs in different environments - downtown, shopping malls, grocery stores, country travel, night travel... just about every possibility you can think of, we did it.
I have some remaining, residual sight. In the daylight hours, I manage pretty well - at night, I see nothing. Even at dusk I see nothing. I was thrilled when I took Chara out for night travel work and she did amazingly well. For me, the true test of a dog's ability comes through night travel work.
After 13 days of training, we were sent home. We are finally getting settled into our home life... Chara is doing great with the kids and has settled into her new home. I'm enjoying every minute I get to spend with her both in harness (working) and not (just being a pup). I'm looking forward to many years working with this dog!
A special thanks to Leader Dogs for the Blind, Jen and Steve (Chara's puppy raisers), Randy (my trainer in Florida) and Jamie (Chara's trainer).
And finally - Chara. You truly are the bright, shining star that you were named after. Introducing Ms. Chara:
I've got a ton more to write - so much going on, but can't quite get my thoughts together.... for now, all I will say is that through all of my circumstances, I have never been more thankful.....