Saturday, November 22, 2008

The importance of a service dog in the life of a visually impaired person

Excitement swept over the crowd of children as “Miss Ginger” entered the room.

It is no wonder considering that Miss Ginger is a dog. This sweet golden retriever and her handler, Len Quinn, were at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School informing students of how dogs, like Miss Ginger, are trained to guide visually impaired people.

Leader Dogs for the Blind is an organization that has been providing guide dogs since 1939. With funds provided by organizations such as Lion Clubs, Leader Dogs give fully trained guide dogs free of charge to the visually impaired. Even the elementary school children exclaimed “whoa” when they were informed that each trained dog costs $38,000. About 14,000 dogs have been donated to those in need. That is equivalent to $532 million dollars.

Perham Elementary School Principal Kari Yates with Len Quinn and “Ginger.”

Leader Dogs has a large training facility in Rochester, Michigan. According to Quinn, the dogs “go into training at 8 weeks,” when they are very young, and it takes them 20-24 months to train. Part of the training process is to take the dogs wherever there is a crowd: the mall, airport, and restaurants. This tests the dog’s ability to behave in a stimulating environment, such as a crowd.

Visually impaired people all the way from Taiwan, Korea, Argentina, Mexico, and Spain go to Leader Dogs for the Blind. The organization teaches how to rely on the dogs. The people take 26 days to acquire blind trust. “It’s hard when you’ve made decisions all your life. You have to learn how to trust,” says Quinn.

A harness, which is attached to the dog, allows a person to feel the dog’s movements.

“Ginger talks to me by the way she moves her legs, neck, chest, and head…I listen with my fingers. She can tell me hundreds of different things when we’re walking down the street… If there is a car or pole… If there is danger,” he said.

Quinn described to the children how there are different signals that the dogs make. For example, big steps means a curb is ahead. When the dog steps down on the curb, a person can feel how high the curb is.

The Perham school presentation was one of several in the area during Quinn and Ginger’s visit.
They were also guests at the Perham Area Rotary Club meeting last week, and at the New York Mills Lions meeting. There was also a presentation at the New York Mills school.

Guide dogs have changed the lives of the visually impaired. The dogs have provided independence and mobility.

Quinn described how Miss Ginger would go to K-Mart with him. After the fourth time going to the same location, Miss Ginger was able to lead Quinn to K-mart by memory. Thanks to Leader Dogs for the Blind, so many opportunities are open to the visually impaired. They have the freedom to buy their own groceries, get jobs, and go to school.


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