Leader Dog pups trained to become heroes
THE FLINT TOWNSHIP NEWS
Sunday, July 30, 2006
By Elizabeth Lowe [email protected] • 810.766.6281
BURTON - Murray Too seems perfectly content with his lot in life.
Sprawled on the floor of the Burton Memorial Library story corner, the long-haired German shepherd gets brushed and patted and rubbed by children who can't get enough of the pup. The 7-month-old shepherd was part of the library's July 17 program about Leader Dogs.
"Murray, come," said puppy raiser JoAnne McDonald of Flint Township in a high-pitched voice, demonstrating the importance of obedience.
Recall - showing up when the dog hears its name - is vital for a Leader Dog pup, who may someday work with an owner who is hearing or visually impaired.
Lisa Hoskins of Burton was born with glaucoma and lost her sight at 18. But she's pretty independent thanks to Abel, her 3-year-old Leader Dog, who for the past year has been living with Hoskins and her son Jason Gebhart, 13. Hoskins travels with McDonald to libraries to familiarize kids with a working guide dog.
"Is Lisa going to know where her dog is if he doesn't come to her when she calls?" asks McDonald. A dozen tikes shake their heads no. The kids want to know all about the pups and their training too.
"Can we teach the dogs to fetch?" asks Alexandra Kekel, 4, of Grand Blanc.
Actually, no. Guide dogs who are taught to chase a ball, Frisbee or stick would be a liability to the owners they work with, McDonald said.
That's why Hoskins doesn't allow Abel to be played with, at least not while he's working.
"I can't let anyone pat him - he's too into people," Hoskins said. "Abel's got to keep his mind on his work. If I allowed that, he might get to seeking attention."
But Murray is young. He still needs to work on socialization, an important aspect of puppy raising.
Murray and about six other dogs in his group of puppy raisers meet regularly. Next month they'll meet at Burger King while their humans have a snack, then board an MTA bus and head to Genesys Regional Medical Center's walking trails. While pups aren't entitled by law to travel without restriction like working guide dogs, most Genesee County establishments welcome Leader Dogs-in-training, McDonald said.
It's important for the dogs to experience all sorts of events, surfaces and modes of transportation. Wooden steps, for instance, instead of carpeted, are something the dogs need to become acquainted with.
When something's amiss, such as broken pieces of asphalt in the library's parking lot, the dog stops. Abel waited for Lisa to feel the pavement with her foot before she signaled for him to continue.
McDonald, 67, has raised Leader Dog puppies for 13 years. The program used to operate strictly with donated dogs, but for the past four decades Leader Dog has overseen breeding and raising of most of their guide dogs.
While donated dogs are still accepted, Leader Dogs who are bred and raised specifically for the program are more likely to make the cut. About 80 percent of dogs who have been raised by volunteer puppy raisers will graduate, compared to about 33 percent of donated dogs, McDonald said. When a dog doesn't graduate - Leader Dog calls it being "career changed" - it's usually due to a medical condition, such as a food allergy since the dogs are required to eat dog food that's available worldwide so they can be placed with an owner in any country.
A puppy raiser gets first dibs on keeping a career-changed dog.
"It's very difficult to give them up but worse for them to call and say they didn't make it," McDonald said. "We're raising them ... to give somebody else the independence and their self confidence back."
Leader Dog facts
# Headquartered in Rochester, Mich., Leader Dog is the second largest guide dog facility in the world
# Most Leader Dogs are raised in Michigan
# Leader Dog puppy raisers are volunteers
# On average, Leader Dog graduates 22 dogs a month
# Each Leader Dog costs about $37,000
# Owners don't pay for their Leader Dog
# Leader Dog is funded mainly through Lions Club efforts and public donations
# Most Leader Dogs are pure-bred or mixed Labradors, golden retrievers or German shepherds
# Standard poodles are now becoming Leader Dogs due to owners' dog allergies
That was really interesting. Thanks for sharing. I admire the people who home the pups, but I couldn't do it. It would break my heart to have to give them up at the end. I just think that is so amazing, and was your boy proud of his pups!! I know you were. What beautiful pups they were too!!! Good job Seamus.
"Seeing Eye," Morristown, NJ, (guide dogs for the blind) breeds their own Labs and German Shepherds. They breed their own not only for temperament and trainability but also for moderate size. Then they're placed in foster homes during puppyhood for initial training (socialization, etc.) until being evaluated for further training. If I remember correctly, about 2/3rds are selected for further training and 1/3rds are placed as pets.
Puff [YF, AKC field line (from competing HT/FT breeder) 62 lbs, dob: 8-'01]
About the same odds Bob. I will say I was able to pick Seamus' pups out of the hundreds of dogs there yesterday. Many of the dogs/pups there were very tall and lanky. As the gal told me, they breed all types though they are trying to get away from the more fieldy type, since all types of people apply for their dogs. They don't want all the dogs Seamus' size in case taller people need a dog. They don't want all taller dogs in case a smaller person needs a dog.
I also volunteered Seamus for Paws for a Cause, but he's smaller than what they generally are looking for.
Cool. I'd never be able to raise them - letting go is hard (and it would be impossible to enforce some of the rules those puppies have to be raised by in my household). A gal on my raw list is a puppy home for seeing eye dogs. She's had quite a few and most have passed their testing. But whenever they leave it's hard. OTOH she says it's awesome when they graduate.