Leader Dogs for the Blind: ‘Let’s raise a puppy!’ — Part I

Gable at 13 months.
Gable at 13 months. Submitted photos
The new Leader Dog Training Facility.
The new Leader Dog Training Facility.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee wrote, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This has become one of my favorite quotes of all time. It is based on a proverb from the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans: “Never criticize a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins.”

For Barry and Judy Koffel, their first visit to the Leader Dog School in Rochester Hills, MI really brought this quote to life when they were both blind folded and guided through an obstacle course with a Leader Dog: a dog used to guide the blind and visually impaired. What began as curiosity with the Leader Dog for the Blind program has become an experience that has truly changed their lives and the lives of so many people.

When Judy was finished the obstacle course, she removed her blindfold and had tears running down her cheeks. Barry distinctly remembers her saying, “I am ready to get involved with this program. Let’s raise a puppy.”

A year later, the Koffels not only undertook the challenge but in a span of 12 years, they raised 12 puppies. Barry became the Lions Club District Leader Dog Chairman helping others raise and train puppies for Leader Dog.

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There are many organizations that help people with overcoming challenges due to physical or emotional issues. Over the years, I have written articles on The Seeing Eye who focus solely on guide dogs for the blind and the visually impaired. I have also written on Canine Companions and Canine Partners for Life whose focus is on those with disabilities and medical issues other than blindness that affect a person’s ability to use their hands, arms or legs. October is National Blind Awareness month, so it is only appropriate that I address another service dog organization: The Leader Dog Program sponsored by the Lions Cub.

Leader Dogs for the Blind was established in 1939 and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which relies solely on donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and service groups such as Lions Clubs. Clients who are at least 16 years of age, legally blind, possess good mobility and orientation skills and are able to care for their dog are candidates for a Leader Dog. Leader Dog matches clients to dogs that best fit their lifestyle, travel pace, physical size, stamina and much more.

Barry and Judy had been initially exposed to Leader Dog in the 1970’s when a public program was presented at the Upper Perk High School.

One of the presenters was a young blind woman from Hatfield, Montgomery County who was blind and had just received her first Leader Dog. She explained to the group how it had given her life back to her. She now had the freedom and mobility to go for walks daily. That presentation stayed with them. In the 1980’s, Barry and Judy joined a local Lion’s Club where Barry rose quickly to the rank of District Governor of District 14-R (Montgomery County). It was during this time their passion for the Leader Dog program blossomed and it was the event of putting themselves in another person’s shoes many years ago, if only for a short time, that was the catalyst for their future work of raising puppies for the program.

Next week, learn more about how Leader Dog for the Blind operates, how they empower the blind, visually impaired or Deaf-Blind to live a fully, more independent life and learn what you can do to help them move forward.