Continuing on from our last post about guide dog awareness….. I wanted to showcase one particular group – Leader Dogs for the Blind out of Rochester, MI. They graciously allowed me to observe a puppy raiser meeting as well as their more formal training of their dogs. Once the dogs have been with a puppy raiser for a year or so, they move back to Leader Dog HQ for more serious training with the staff at Leader Dog and when they graduate training, they are placed with someone needing a guide dog.
If you didn’t catch part 1, you can get caught up here. I dove into the basics of working dogs and what a guide dog is. It is important to understand these differences especially when you see a working dog out in public. Please read their harness signs/patches carefully to know what is appropriate handling of their dogs. If you see a therapy dog, there is a good chance the handler will not mind you petting the dogs, but if the dog is a guide dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind or a search and rescue dog, it is very likely petting or interacting with the dog is prohibited.
My first question was where do they get their dogs? Their group does their own breeding and their dogs range from Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers to German Shepherd Dogs and sometimes a mix of those breeds depending on the temperament they want to cultivate in their guide dogs. The breed isn’t as important as much as the health and personality of the dog. Leader Dog needs their guide dogs to be trainable and non-reactive. From the whelping process to puppy raisers, most of the people raising these dogs are all volunteer. After puppies are born, approximately 10% of these puppies are unable to proceed as a Leader Dog due to health concerns. This is called a “career change”. Any dogs that do not move forward as a Leader Dog are adopted out and career changed. If you have any interest in adopting a Leader Dog, get in touch with them ASAP! They have a long waiting list.
After the puppies go through training and living with a puppy raiser, they are then turned back over to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester for more extensive and formal training. As a puppy they wear bandanas or a fabric vest, but once they are in formal training, they are upgraded to a leather harness. When the LD is wearing the leather harness they are officially “working”.
Leader Dogs for the Blind has a very rigorous training regimen for their dogs. It is of the utmost importance to go through this training and to make sure the dogs pass. If at any time a Leader Dog does protect their training handler it could mean danger for a blind handler once they receive the dog. The clients receiving these dogs are at varying levels of blindness and it is the dogs job to keep them safe and out of danger. They are essentially the eyes for these handlers.
I have witnessed first hand the training they receive and the dogs love the job and like “working”. Leader Dog uses positive reinforcement to train and it is an excellent way to make the training enjoyable for the dog and instructor. The dogs in harness know they are working. Once the harness comes off, they are on break and are either “parking” (going potty) or able to relax or play. I think there is a common misconception that these dogs are always working, and never get to have a break, but that is not the case. There is plenty of down time for these dogs to relax and enjoy life.
Once a Leader Dog gradates and is handed off to a client, Leader Dogs for the Blind remains in touch with them and continues to make sure they are doing well with the dog and that dog is a good fit for the home. I was happy to see that once a dog goes to placement with a home, there are so many people within the Leader Dog community who follow-up and remain friends with all the clients. Between the volunteers that whelp, puppy raisers and the employees that are involved in the training, all of these dogs are a big part of their lives and remain in their hearts. It is always nice to get updates from the handlers on how the dogs are doing.
Leader Dogs for the Blind is a 501 (C) (3) non-profit. They are funded through donations made directly to their organization as well as the Lions Clubs. The Lions Club are a major part of the organization and are very invested not just financially but emotionally to the work Leader Dogs for the Blind does. They are proud of the organization they started and how it has grown over the years.
They could not do the work they do without donations from the public. If you want to assist them in helping the blind community, you are able to make donations on their website at https://www.leaderdog.org/donate/. This group of humans are incredible and I admire the work they do. The volunteers and staff put in so much time and energy to make sure every Leader Dog is successful.