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Guide dogs, 'puppy walkers,' change lives for visually impaired

 


Blind DevotionGuide dogs, 'puppy walkers,' change lives for visually impaired

Feb. 13, 2004

A UMNS Feature By Heather Peck Stahl*

Blind since birth, Stacey Robinson used a cane to navigate her way through the beginning of college. By the second year, she was exhausted by the unpredictable difficulties of walking across the campus.

"Every day, a new obstacle appeared, causing me to get lost or crash into people," Robinson says.

She decided to apply for a guide dog. Her wish was fulfilled eight months after contacting Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown, N.Y.

"Walking with a guide dog is as close to seeing as I can get," says Robinson, 28, whose blindness was caused when she was born three and a half months premature and received too much oxygen at birth. "It took me 26 days of training to learn to walk with my first dog, Indigo, and it's been wonderful ever since, knowing that I can walk with more confidence and ease."

Shortly before Robinson graduated from college in 2000, she received her second guide dog, Amigo, a male, yellow Labrador retriever. Amigo helps Robinson with her daily tasks as well as her job as a lay speaker at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in College Grove, Tenn.

"After graduating from college, I had trouble finding a good job," says Robinson. "A friend suggested I become a lay minister; and it's been the best thing I've ever done."

Wesley Chapel, which has an average attendance of about 25, helped Robinson buy a computer that allows her to read the Bible, write sermons and take notes. The Braille Lite computer includes a Braille keyboard for typing copy, vocal output through an internal synthesizer and Braille output.

In her free time, Robinson speaks at area churches, elementary schools and community groups about blindness and guide dogs. The youngest of five siblings, Robinson and her visually impaired husband both rely on her mother, Vivian Scales, for transportation.

"I'm so thankful to the people who helped bring Amigo to me," says Robinson, who maintains a friendly relationship with Amigo's original trainers (called puppy walkers) in Connecticut. "It's got to be a calling from God to train these dogs."

Sally McCanner is such a puppy walker. She is associate director of production for the Upper Room at United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

In 1990, Sally responded to an advertisement for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind Inc. in Smithtown, N.Y. When she learned she didn't have the resources to be a guide dog sponsor, she discovered she could be a puppy walker instead.

Though McCanner had never seen a working guide dog before she became a puppy walker, the mission of the foundation was dear to her heart.

"Labrador retrievers are my favorite breed, and being a puppy walker is a labor of love for the dogs as well as the people who receive them," says McCanner, who has helped train 13 puppies to date. "It's so rewarding to see your dog graduate and change another person's life for the better."

As a puppy walker, McCanner keeps one puppy at a time (usually a black or yellow Labrador retriever) from age two months until 13 or 14 months old. She primarily housebreaks the puppy, socializes it in different settings, teaches it house manners and gives it loving attention.

She brings her current puppy, Buddy, to work, so he can become accustomed to various people and situations. When at work, Buddy wears a yellow jacket with the foundation's logo and the words, "Future Guide Dog."

"When I walk with Buddy, people instantly want to talk to me," McCanner says. "My puppies-in-training bring out the human side of people and help sensitize people to the reality of disabilities."

McCanner admits that relinquishing each puppy at the end of its training is difficult. "I cry my eyes out every time, but I also remember that the sole purpose of these dogs is to give others a life of independence."

As soon as McCanner returns a puppy, she accepts a new one to train. Most puppies that graduate from the guide dog training go on to assist a visually disabled person, but a few are reserved for breeding.

"The neatest part of my job is meeting the people my dogs are guiding," McCanner says. She stays connected with her working guide dogs, sending them birthday cards and attending their graduation services whenever possible. She also mails their owners holiday cards and occasional notes.

For the past six years, McCanner has been the Tennessee area coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. In doing so, she helps educate potential puppy walkers about the program and match these candidates with the foundation.

The owner of five cats, McCanner also has three of her former guide dogs. Two were removed from the program because of poor hip structure and one is a 12-year-old retired guide dog. All of the animals follow a daily routine along with each puppy-in-training.

"Why do I do it?" McCanner says. "I love these dogs, I believe in the cause, and I love making a difference in people's lives."

*Stahl is a freelance journalist and editor in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 or
newsdesk@umcom.org

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