Meet and greet
Training program begins with introductions of guide dogs, prospective owners
By Amy Saunders
The dog becomes its owner’s means of navigating the world — his eyes, his inseparable companion.
But the relationship between the two doesn’t begin that way.
Raised by a foster family, the dog has spent more time as an average pet than a vital leader.
And the person, typically blind or visually impaired for years, might not be used to handling an animal or even taking walks.
The strangers gradually become a team at Pilot Dogs, a 58-year-old West Side school that’s among 10 in the country training guide dogs and prospective owners.
The four-week program is a boot camp of sorts: Students sleep in twin beds, eat cafeteria food and train for 12 hours a day, six days a week — first in the school’s Town Street neighborhood and, eventually, on COTA buses and the streets of Downtown.
A test in the final week determines whether students can take their animals home and be counted among the 8,000 active guide-dog users in the United States — a figure representing less than 1 percent of the estimated 1.5 million visually impaired Americans.
The schooling is strenuous, particularly for those who don’t work or who tend to stay close to home. Each year, a handful of the 150 students who enroll quit or fail the class.
“You see a lot of different moods as they go through it: anxiety, excitement, depression, anxiety again,” said Jay Gray, executive director of the nonprofit organization, which provides dogs to students at no cost.
“It usually goes smoothly, but there’s times it just does not.”
Five students — including three featured in this three-day package of stories — began the challenge Nov. 24.
During a two-day orientation, students practiced walking around the school and learned commands they’d need to instruct their dogs.
On the third day, dogs and students started their training together.
Randy: a world unraveled
To catch up with his slender dog, 43-year-old Randy Bailey had to move faster than he had in four years.
During that time, in fact, he’d hardly left his apartment. He had no reason to leave.
His life had deteriorated in just nine months — his health, his marriage and, ultimately, his sight.
First, a rare stomach infection ravaged his body, leaving but 100 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
Then, weakened by the illness as well as his lifelong struggle with diabetes, Randy in early 2004 suffered what he later learned was a series of strokes.
His vision, a little out of sorts initially, was gone by that July.
Meanwhile, his wife — the mother of his four children — divorced him after 16 years of marriage.
And, shortly after he moved out of the house with the family’s Shetland sheepdog, Rowdy was attacked and killed by a friend’s much-larger Akita.
Darkness and depression overcame Randy in a Greenville, Ill., senior center — the only apartment he could find at the time of the divorce, the one he has rarely left since.
“I was mad at the world, and I was scared to death,” he said. “I cried a lot, I did; I was devastated. I still am, to a certain degree.”
As Randy’s emotions eased, he began thinking of rejoining the world he once knew — as a graduate of Northwestern University, as a high-school math teacher and, for the previous 20 years, as a fine-dining chef.
Heeding advice given a year earlier by his teenage daughter, Kayla, he finally made a move by enrolling at Pilot Dogs.
“I’m ready to get back living again,” he said. “There’s gotta be more for me than just sitting in my apartment 24 hours a day. There’s gotta be.”
Randy found his opportunity on that first-day walk with Brice, as the vizsla, a lean breed of Hungarian stock, pulled him around the block fast — enjoyably fast.
Afterward, the dog — which had cowered nervously upon meeting him — was jumping onto his chair, body wiggling, her face in his.
For the first time in two hours, he’d stopped petting her; she wanted his attention.
Phil: a long wait ended
In a stark, temporary bedroom, Phil Jackson finally met the dog he wasn’t supposed to have.
Therapists had discouraged him from attending guide-dog school, fearing the classes would overwhelm him. Blind and partially deaf for all his 40 years, Phil is prone to stumbling into walls and obstacles or mixing up his lefts and rights.
A dog, though, could help him navigate his hometown of Bristol, Va., with the accuracy, speed and grace not afforded by his cane.
A dog could lead him to the pulpit of his small Baptist church and help him develop skills for a job that provides the money his ministry cannot.
Phil had wanted a dog for years — and now, on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, his anticipation heightened as he awaited her delivery.
Three hours later, when a trainer announced the dog’s arrival, Phil readied himself immediately, snapping forward in his chair — arms out and waiting for Corky to fill them.
The black Labrador bounded into the room, presenting herself in all her panting, wagging, jumping glory.
“All right, all right!” Phil exclaimed as his hands felt for Corky’s head and nose. “This puppy cannot realize how long I’ve waited for this to happen.”
He promptly ignored instructions to remain seated. If the dog was wiggling her way toward the door, so was Phil — on his hands and knees, willing to follow any path that led to Corky.
“I’ve waited for you forever,” he repeated.
The meeting was momentous for Corky, too; her release from five months of training and kennel life was cause for celebratory jumping and crying.
Such behavior confused Phil, who had never owned a dog — or seen one.
In his deliberate, Southern drawl, he sought the wisdom of the sighted, asking a trainer: “When she’s crying like that and you look at her, do you see tears coming out?”
Elaine: a ‘lost soul’ searching
Sometimes, a sprightly, 50-pound black Lab is no match for an 83-year-old who, when seated, can’t always reach her feet to the floor.
” Nooo! No, Dee Dee! We have to wait our turn!” Elaine Brittain pleaded as her dog lunged for a door in hopes of following the just-departed dog of another student.
At first, Dee Dee had seemed just the friend Elaine was seeking: affectionate and attentive — and, as a bonus, petite and dark.
“I can see you better,” Elaine told the squirming dog upon meeting her. “And you’re little and short – just my size, yes. You’re going to live with me and be my helper because I need a bunch of help, Dee Dee.”
Only minutes into knowing the dog, though, Elaine was fighting for control. And the day before, even without Dee Dee yanking on her, she had lost her balance and fallen during a walk outside.
“I’m afraid I’ll fall again,” she told a trainer, her voice quivering. “What worries me is she’s so strong. Will she settle down? I sure don’t want to fall.”
Concerns about her physical abilities had plagued Elaine long before she arrived at Pilot Dogs. She suffers from painful arthritis and degenerative vision that has turned her world into blurs and patches.
Until recently, the 10-year widow had been content to live alone in the Highland County city of Hillsboro. She made regular trips to the salon, the post office and, on occasion, to a bar for country-music night and margaritas.
She had been more lonely than independent, though, since autumn, when her boxer, Rocky, died of cancer.
“I’ve been a lost soul ever since,” she said. “He was a wonderful, wonderful dog; he surely was. I never went anywhere without him.”
With her sight worsening, she applied to Pilot Dogs at the urging of friends from her beauty shop. A companion could make her happier — and maybe extend her life. Her mother, after all, lived to age 95.
“I’m not giving up yet,” Elaine said. “But if I don’t get another dog, I might.”
Public can lend a hand in a variety of ways
Want to help?
From puppyhood to Pilot Dogs, training and placing a guide dog with an owner costs about $8,000.
But the dog — including transportation to the West Side school and four weeks of classes — is free to students.
The nonprofit agency operates on a $1.4 million annual budget, with 20 percent of the money provided by Lions Clubs International and the rest from memberships and donations.
The school also relies on dog donations and puppy raisers.
Potential volunteers can learn more by calling 614-221-6367or visiting www.pilotdogs.org. The basics:
To donate money
• Checks, payable to Pilot Dogs Inc., should be sent to 625 W. Town St., Columbus, Ohio 43215.
To donate a dog
• About 90 percent of the school guide dogs come from breeding programs, but Pilot Dogs also accepts private donations of dogs.
• The school uses seven breeds: German shepherd, Doberman pinscher, boxer, Labrador retriever, golden retriever, vizsla and standard poodle.
• Females between 50 and 60 pounds are preferred. Dogs between 14 and 30 months old are accepted for a probationary period while their temperament and training potential are evaluated.
To raise a puppy
• A foster family can raise a future Pilot Dog for about a year, starting when the puppy is 7 to 10 weeks old. Guide-dog puppies are raised like pets — with housebreaking, obedience classes and exposure to different people and places.
• Pilot Dogs provides a leash, collar and brush, and reimburses families for veterinary and obedience-school costs (but not for food).
• When the puppy reaches 12 to 14 months of age, it returns to Pilot Dogs for three to five months of guide-dog training. About half won’t make the cut. Breeders get first dibs on adopting those dogs, followed by the puppy raiser and then those on a public waiting list.