Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pilot dogs for the visually impaired

After two weeks of intense training and lots of practice, Jane Dickard and her new Pilot Dog have returned home to a life of greater independence and mobility. Pilot Dogs are trained to help guide blind and visually impaired individual. A non-profit organization based in Columbus, Ohio, Pilot Dogs provides free, in-residence training for blind and visually impaired individuals who seek this unique form of mobility. During their stay, the dog and master learn to navigate busy streets, use public transportation and more. To complete the training, it is vital that the two work as one and are able to face any situation they may encounter once they return home.This is Dickard's seventh Pilot Dog. She received her first dog in 1967 at the age of 17. She previously worked at the Pet Behavior and Training Center and now spends her time enjoying being a homemaker and grandma. Her household includes dogs, including her retired Pilot Dog, birds and a cat."I've been blind since birth, and the first time I used a dog guide, it's hard to describe the freedom it gave me," Dickard said. "I could never go out by myself before. I traveled with my sisters, or would go around the neighborhood by myself because I was familiar with it, but that was it. It's definitely a faster way of travel for me too, because I don't really like using a cane."Dickard explained that one of her teachers at the Ohio School for the Blind had a Pilot Dog and her goal was to get through school and get one herself. When talking about the bond and trust established with each dog, Dickard laughs, "I've been wrong plenty of times where my dog was right. It's a good feeling to know they will help you stay safe."Some of those incidents include avoiding construction on a sidewalk, tripping into a hole and the scariest one, when a car ran a red light and her dog moved her out of harms way.Dickard's Pilot Dog is a Doberman Pinscher. Pilot Dogs has been using the smart, working breed since the organization began. Dickard likes using the Doberman, although she has used German Shepherds as well.According to Pilot Dogs, individuals should not approach, talk to, stare at or pet the dog if met in public. "It's important for the dog to stay focused on the task at hand, which is to guide its master" said Jay Gray, Executive Director. "While people want to be nice and pet the dog, it is a distraction for the team."Access laws guarantee a blind person the legal right to be accompanied by a specially trained dog guide in all public accommodations. Public facilities include restaurants, libraries, office buildings and more.Established in 1950, Pilot Dogs provides its trained dogs to the qualified blind at no cost. The organization is supported entirely by public contributions and support from Lions International, individual donors and other organizations and companies. "Some of the new students at Pilot Dogs don't have the slightest idea about the bond they will have with the dog," Dickard explained. "It just becomes part of who you are. And the dog is a good ambassador too. You are much more approachable with a dog at your side, you almost have to fend people off."The organization depends on volunteers to raise puppies used to become Pilot Dogs. Individuals from throughout Ohio and neighboring states provide foster homes for nearly one year, at which time the dogs are ready for formal training. During the time in their home, raisers are asked to socialize the puppies and take them to an obedience course. Pilot Dogs pays the cost of veterinary expenses and up to $75 for an obedience course. A variety of individuals have provided their home for this program including youth, families, adults and 4-H members and high school seniors who raise puppies as a project.For more information, call 614-221-6367 or visit


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