Friday, August 24, 2007

Non-profit organization trains service dogs for the visually impaired

Pedestrians took notice one morning last week when Seymour crossed Avenue E.
They slowed down and stared as Seymour waited at the curb and then proceeded across the street with his companion, Jamie Landy.

He ambled along the sidewalk in a straight line, prepared, if necessary, to navigate around any obstacles. He stopped for low-hanging branches and sloping sidewalks.

As Seymour walked alongside Landy, he didn't tarry, and he knew it wasn't time to play. The 18-month-old Labrador and golden retriever mix was still in training — learning how to help people walk with more freedom and a bit more confidence.

Seymour is about to graduate from Guide Dogs of Texas, a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio. One of 18 canines in training, he'll soon be matched with a visually impaired client who matches his personality.

While some people are uncomfortable around people who have disabilities, unsure what to say, guide dogs tend to bring people out, said Sandy Merrill, director of training.

"People come over and say, 'How are you? I love your dog,'" Merrill said.

Merrill and two apprentices, Landy and Sarah Mumme, provide one-on-one instruction for the only guide dog training team in Texas. It costs about $40,000 to train just one dog, paid for through donations and gifts.

Jamie Landy, an instructor with Guide Dogs of Texas, motions forward to Seymour during a walking training session in downtown San Antonio recently. Volunteers raise the dogs from 8 weeks to when they are 16 months and ready for advanced training.

Volunteers, called "Puppy Raisers," rear the dogs from 8 weeks until they are 16 months old and ready to begin advanced training.

Merrill and both her apprentices started as volunteers.

Merrill, who worked with seals at a Wisconsin zoo, came to San Antonio for a visit and never left. Mumme helped out when on breaks from college, grooming the dogs.

And witnessing how a guide dog drastically changed her visually impaired father's life drew Landy to the group.

Trainers take the dogs downtown and to residential areas to master the various environments they will encounter.

Last Wednesday, they spent the morning walking Seymour and five others around the city's sun-drenched streets.

Landy led Seymour through his exercises, as Audio, Huey, Annie, Jazz and D.J. peered from a tinted window in their waiting white van, cooled by the air conditioner.

Trainers teach the dogs how to recognize objects through verbal commands, instructions such as "find the bus" and "find the door."

With a black leash in one hand, Landy added swift gestures with the other.

Seymour met every command without fail. One by one, the 12 puppies and six dogs in advanced training will be matched with new owners across the state. The cost for a guide dog — $1.
But first, there is still work to be done.

At the end of their walk, Landy, 21, fished a treat from her hip-pouch. She praised Seymour, and then opened the van door for him.

He squeezed inside beside his mates and lapped cold water from a bowl as wide as a cake pan.
Landy ruffled a handful of his light yellow fur, steadily scratching his back as a final reward.

It's difficult, the trainers said, to form bonds with these dogs, then let them go. They're proud, yet sad, when their companions receive white, reflective harnesses at graduation, knowing the time has come to say goodbye.

But watching them leave with a special match compensates for their bittersweet reality.

"It's like how people might feel when their kids go off to college," Merrill said. "You've done your part and are really happy that they're out in the world doing what they're meant to be doing."


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