Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Untrainable dog" according to ex-owners may become guide dog for the blind

When Sadie, a 14-month-old German Shepherd mix, was dropped off at the Donald Reese Animal Shelter, her owners said she was difficult to train and they could do nothing with her.Sadie, however, proved to be friendly and intelligent with a willingness to learn, so the Otsego County animal shelter staff and the Lions Club of Gaylord teamed up to take Sadie down to Leader Dogs for the Blind. Leader Dog, located in Rochester, trains dogs for the blind and visually impaired.

After arriving in Rochestser earlier this week, Sadie passed an initial behavior test meant to weed out dogs unsuitable for the program.“I think the message to be learned is that there are a lot of animals out there that have a lot of potential and just need the right person to bring it out. Many dogs seem difficult to handle, but that does not mean they are not trainable,” said Otsego County Animal Control Director Angel Oppermann.

She said the Lions have several volunteers who drive dogs to Rochester for testing.According to Leader Dogs kennel manager Steve Solwold, the behavior test — part of graduating about 275 dogs annually — is meant to ensure a dog is friendly, confident and “sound’ enough for the job. Tests of the dog’s behavior include walking the dogs along roadsides with 40-mph traffic, or walking up stairs toward a mirror and its own reflection, explained Solwold.While Sadie passed her first test, she has a few other hurdles before she would be able to guide a blind or visually impaired owner.

An extensive medical evaluation, which disqualifies many of the dogs, and a five-month training program lie ahead for Sadie, who now is one of about 200 dogs donated by the public each year, according to Solwold.“We have high hopes, even though a small number (of dogs) complete the intense training,” Solwold said, referring to Sadie’s chances of becoming a leader dog.He said the odds are against Sadie completing the program successfully, considering about one in 10 dogs donated from the street graduate. (According to the Leader Dog Web site, about 90 percent of the dogs graduated each year are bred by the organization, with the remaining coming by donation.)

Solwold explained that the screening process has to take into account many behaviors non-blind owners may not need to address as the dog provides a lot of visual behavioral clues. He noted many “good” dogs will fail because the scrutiny must by high to produce quality leader dogs who are able to meet needs of the visually impaired.Even if Sadie does not complete the program, Leader Dogs ensures the donated pets will be found an adoptable home.


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