‘Let’s raise a puppy’ Part II — Leader Dogs give the blind a fuller life

Judy and Barry Koffel with Gable at 3 months old.
Judy and Barry Koffel with Gable at 3 months old.

Over 14,500 Leader Dogs have been raised, trained and paired with a clients worldwide since 1939 (4-6 annually who are both deaf and blind.) It has been a long time coming but on Oct. 26, Leader Dog’s staff in Rochester Hills, MI anticipates moving people, breeding stock and puppies into their new $14.5 million Canine Development Center. This state of the art facility will enable Lions International to better serve their blind and visually impaired clients.

The dogs are bred at the school which allows the staff to ensure all dogs have good genetics. There will be a new intake area for breeding dogs and puppy litters, a new breeding area to meet the community’s demand and a new lobby with a veterinary waiting room, adult dog intake, retail space and a new “Pupquarium” where visitors can see the newest litters. Puppy raisers will pick up their new puppies in Rochester Hills. The path for a puppy to become a Leader Dog for the blind or visually impaired is a long and challenging one.

According to 12-year Montgomery County puppy raiser, Barry Koffel, “Puppies are like sponges. They absorb things very quickly.” Obedience commands such as sit, stay, down and relieving themselves on command are taught. Puppies must also be socialized. This means the dog goes EVERYWHERE: grocery stores, doctor’s offices, public transportation, shopping malls, restaurants and more. It is the goal of every puppy raiser to expose the dog to every possible situation before the puppy raisers receive instructions to make arrangements to bring the puppy back to Leader Dog to continue training.

Upon returning to Rochester Hills, the puppy raiser turns the puppy over to a trainer where the puppy undergoes an “evaluation walk” to ensure all the necessary training has been done to their satisfaction. If the dog passes the evaluation, he is taken back to the kennels where he begins his/her next phase of training. They are placed in isolation for seven days to ensure no disease or illness is taken with them into the kennel area. After seven days, they return to the kennel to join over 300 dogs and at least twenty trainers for 6-7 months of formal training. The dogs (mostly Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds) are then paired with the visually impaired.

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The “downtown facility” of the school, located in and around Rochester Hills and Detroit, is where the students and dogs train as a team in the city, country and anywhere else the trainers feel will help each individual student prepare to navigate through the darkness of their hometown. The handlers learn “Juno training”, a process of having the blind or visually impaired train on holding the harness (like the dog would be in the harness) and then teaching the students how it will feel with a dog in the harness. The trainer will evaluate the visually impaired: how they walk, their speed, how tall they are and what type of area they will be walking in (city, country, etc.) After three days, the trainer matches a dog to a student and, more often than not, the pairing is perfect. Should the pairing not work, another dog is chosen. Not all puppies graduate to be Leader Dogs. Those that aren’t may go to their puppy raiser, another organization that needs highly trained and obedient canines or adopted out as pets.

Leader Dogs for the Blind is the only organization in the United States utilizing GPS technology as a standard component of their guide dog training program to provide location, direction, street name, nearby points of interest and other information. The technology helps the visually impaired plan their own travel rather than relying on others to fill this need and Leader Dogs help them to their destination.

It is extremely important for the puppies returning to the Canine Development Center to focus. With this in mind, the facility has been redesigned to impact the health, well-being and training for all future Leader Dogs. The goal is to reduce stress, maximize human interaction and best prepare every dog for their work. The cost of training one dog and one visually impaired person to use the Leader Dog is between $40,000 and $45,000 but the cost to the visually impaired is totally free, including transportation to and from the school and their 26 day stay in a private room with bath at the school.

For more information on the Canine Development Center or to become a puppy raiser or volunteer, please visit www.leaderdog.org/lions.