Saturday, September 09, 2006

Service dogs more easily available to the visually impaired

Colleen Wunderlich struggled with when to get a dog guide, if her lifestyle would allow for one, and how to care for one.

If Wunderlich, who is blind, knew the pros and cons of having a dog guide, it would have lessened the anxiety she felt about getting one years ago.

But, thanks to the Hounds for Hadley Dog Walk, a one-mile walk for dogs and their owners through Winnetka on Sept. 16, more people who are blind or visually impaired may get the chance to learn what goes into owning such a service dog.

The Hadley School for the Blind is urging dog owners to collect pledges and turn them in with the $30 registration fee to help fund the development of a course that teaches the benefits and challenges of working and living with a dog guide.

Dog walkers will start at 9 a.m. at the school at 700 Elm Street and will end at Starbucks coffee shop on Chestnut for refreshments and prizes. Volunteers will help with directions and street crossings.

The $30 registration fee deadline is tomorrow, but walkers can register after tomorrow for $40. Registration includes a T-shirt, doggie bandana and goodie bag. There's a $5 charge for each additional dog.

Jackie Sabien, development associate and chairwoman of the dog walk, said the Hounds for Hadley Dog Walk is perfect for Winnetka because there are so many dog owners.
"Hadley people are all about dogs," she said. "People in the community are passionate about their pets."

The walk, she said, will go on, rain or shine.

Wunderlich is a regional manager for Freedom Scientific, a company that develops software that enables computers to talk to blind or visually impaired users. She is working with Hadley and the Chicago Lighthouse for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired to provide training to teachers who will teach students about the software.

She spent six years trying to decide if she should get a dog.

"A course would have lessened the ambiguity," she said.

When she finally got her first dog guide Ike, she wasn't prepared. She didn't know it would take so long for the dog to warm up to her because the dogs develop a strong bond with their trainers before forming one with their handlers. She didn't know she'd have to keep the dog on leash in her home for the first two weeks to get used to each other. She didn't know there'd be more training involved and that she'd be the one doing the training.

"When I actually got one, it was totally different than what I expected it would be," she said. "It would have been nice to know what I'd have to go through. It's important to have a realistic perspective."
But, getting dog guides turned out to be the right thing to do. She eventually formed strong bonds with her dogs, which she wishes she was better prepared for.

"It's a spiritual relationship," she said. "These dogs work because they want to work, not because they have to."

Ike saw guarding Wunderlich as part of his job too. Wunderlich said when she went to the doctor for a cut finger, Ike stood between her and the doctor. Once, when she skinned her knee, Ike was the first to offer help by licking her wound.

But, one day after Wunderlich got engaged, Ike stopped working. He didn't want to pull or guide her anymore. She wonders if Ike felt like he wasn't needed anymore.

"They're very in tune to how we feel inside," she said. "A course would help people understand the special relationship that exists."

Michael Rydel, dean of curricular affairs at Hadley, said seven dog guide schools have helped subsidize the development of the course at $100,000. He said Hadley will use that money to conduct focus groups, design a course students can take at a distance and develop material in large print, Braille, audio and online.

"However, this amount only gets the course off the ground," he said. "We are raising money to fund operational costs of the course once up and running."

He said the course will consist of five lessons: Defining the dog guide and presenting a history of their use by people who are blind; characteristics and behaviors that contribute to a successful dog guide; issues related to applying to a school; the special relationship between dog and handler; and daily life with a dog guide, including practical and wider considerations.


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