Saturday, January 03, 2009

A service dog can change the life of a visually impaired person

For a visually impaired person, everyday activities like crossing the street or locating an elevator in a building -- second nature to those of us blessed with vision -- pose a challenge. Yet for Patty Zallar, 43, her guide dog, Carlee, became her additional set of eyes and made much of her daily routine easier.

"I love her. It's a special bond between her and I," Patty said. "I don't know what I'd do without her."Carlee follows Patty almost everywhere -- to work daily, to church, to dinner at restaurants. Patty only leaves Carlee behind when she attends concerts, fearing that loud noise would damage her dog's sensitive ears.

Legally blind, Patty has no vision in her left eye and limited tunnel vision in her right eye, a permanent condition she describes as "looking through the thickness of a hollowed-out pencil or pen." Tunnel vision means she lacks peripheral vision, and needs to look directly at something in order to see it. Her vision continues to deteriorate.

"When I go to the eye doctor I can't even see the eye chart hardly anymore," she said.Guide dogs such as Carlee are trained to recognize and locate places like elevators, stairs, store counters, escalators and curbs. According to Patty, Carlee can be patterned to remember new locations if continually brought there.If Carlee is brought to a familiar area like Patty's office and not given any instructions, she will automatically lead Patty to her office room.

However, visually impaired owners cannot simply state a destination and expect their guide dogs to get them there ­-- they have to direct their dogs in the general direction they want to go. "Just because you have a seeing-eye dog, you can't totally depend on them. You still need orientation and mobility to get around," Patty said. "I have to have some idea of where an elevator or escalator is, and she'll find it for me."

Patty controls Carlee by means of a leash and a handle attached to the brown harness on Carlee's body, and directs her to move via commands like "left," "right," "straight" and "forward."Through the handle, Patty can detect subtle hints from Carlee through the harness handle -- the dog will slow down or stop if the way ahead is blocked.When confronted by obstacles like tables, pillars or walls, Carlee will avoid or weave around the obstruction to prevent Patty from getting hurt.

She is also trained to cross roads only when there are no moving vehicles nearby -- she will not move unless she senses no danger.Vision problemsBorn in Wausau, Patty's vision problems began at the age of 5, when her eye doctor diagnosed her with chronic uveitis -- an inflammation of the eyes. She underwent nine surgeries between age 13 and 18 to remove cataracts and calcium deposits and treat glaucoma.

In middle school, Patty still had adequate vision to take a sewing class, where she made a pocket organizer and a denim skirt with the aid of a magnifying glass. At 16, she received her temporary driver's license and drove around under the supervision of her father, Henry Gazda. She decided to stop driving when her vision worsened.

After graduating from high school in 1983, Patty enrolled for a degree in data-processing at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, which offers a program for visually impaired students. Patty learned orientation and mobility skills there and began to use a white cane to help her avoid obstacles. She began working at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue in 1990, where she is project leader in the Technology Services division.

She usually commutes using the paratransit service provided by Metro Transit, which picks her up from home and takes her directly to her destination.Navigating her office with a cane proved challenging."Even if you're using a cane, you can still run into things and hit things," Patty said. "A cane is an obstacle finder, so that's what you're doing -- you're obviously trying to avoid obstacles. When my cane hits something I've got to figure out what it is and how do I get around it.""Patty depended very much on the people keeping her informed of changes in the room layout," said Sandy Hunter, 52, Patty's close friend and former colleague.

"When we changed the floor plan, one hallway would be closed up and another would open up elsewhere. She found it difficult to integrate those changes."Patty found herself having to re-orientate herself to the new layout by recounting steps and reorganizing her mental map of the area. She said she felt like "a mouse in a maze."Using a cane also brought an unwanted stigma along with it. Patty often encountered parents who would tell their children to stay away from or get out of her way."

A lot of people don't know how to deal with someone that has a kind of disability," Patty said. "It's true that I can't see you unless I can hear you coming, but if they don't tell their kid anything else, what are they teaching their child? Avoid them. What I have is not contagious."All that changed with Carlee in tow. Unlike before, people would now open doors for Patty though she could find a door far better than with a cane. Strangers approached her more often.

"Carlee's an icebreaker," Patty said. "She has more clout than me, and that's OK." She affectionately nicknamed her dog "Carlee Starlee" because more people wanted to talk to the dog than to her. Addition to the familyPatty has been married for 12 years to Steve Zallar, 58, a maintenance mechanic. The couple have a 10-year-old son, Andrew.

In 2006, Patty decided to pursue getting a guide dog, a prospect she had mulled for several years. She applied to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Mich. because she was a member of the Wisconsin Lions, a charitable foundation that supported Leader Dog.

Applicants to Leader Dog must be at least 16 years old, legally blind, have good mental and physical health, demonstrate independent travel skills, and successfully complete a basic course in orientation and mobility. Guide dogs and training are provided free of charge to successful applicants. In Madison, the Wisconsin Academy of Graduate Service Dogs offers service dogs for people with mobility impairments.

Unlike guide dogs, which help the visually impaired, service dogs learn more commands and can perform a larger variety of tasks like operating light switches. Leader Dog accepted Patty's application, and she traveled to Michigan to begin her training in August 2006."I thought it was wonderful that Patty was going to get a seeing eye dog," Steve said. "I told her to go for it."At Leader Dog, Patty was paired with Carlee, a sprightly female yellow Labrador.

She learned commands and hand signals to use with Carlee during her training there, as well as how to groom and care for her. "When I went there, I made up my mind that no matter what, I have to trust this dog," Patty said. "I'm not going to use my vision to get around, I'm going to trust her.""The bond between a guide dog and its owner is very strong," said Betsy Gruba of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind, who also owns a guide dog.

"It takes a while to form, but once formed it can't be broken."As part of their nearly month-long training, the pair learned to navigate residential and commercial areas, cross streets and intersections, as well as do country and night traveling.The school provided Patty with an identification card after her graduation in September to certify Carlee as her guide dog. Wisconsin law guarantees a blind person the legal right to be accompanied by a specially trained dog guide in harness in all public accommodations -- this means that she cannot be refused entry into places like hotels, shops or restaurants because of her dog.

Back home, Steve and Andy had begun nesting for the new arrival. "It was the same thing like getting a child," Steve said. "We got the room rearranged, and put a crib in." They also got Carlee a dog bone pillow and a quilt blanket. Today, Carlee sleeps in the living room at night -- the only time the pair are apart. She follows Patty everywhere at home, even when her harness is off. She sits in the back seat of the family truck when they drive out.Changed life"It's not that I do different things than I did before," Patty said.

"I'm still relying on my orientation but it's easier to get places. We're like a duo or a team, she's enhanced my mobility and security about getting around."Potential obstacles like open cabinet doors and large trash cans in the workplace no longer pose a concern, as Carlee simply leads Patty around those obstacles. "Carlee's kind of replaced the courteous person that leads Patty around," Hunter said. "The physical danger of getting around has gone away."Steve said that Carlee has given his wife "complete mobility,'' as the dog can sense what is coming or where things are, unlike when she used a cane.

"Patty was a fast walker even when she had the cane, but she's even faster now," Hunter said. "She's so much freer now, and it's amazing how confident she is." Having Carlee also enabled Patty to do something she hadn't done in decades since her eyesight began to deteriorate -- jog. "When I go walking with her, we'll run or jog a couple of blocks. I'll never be a marathon runner, but that's one thing I haven't done since high school is jog," she said.

For Patty, grooming and caring for Carlee is her way of giving back what she has received in return."To me, it's a wonderful trade-off," Patty said. "She takes care of me and I take care of her. I don't know what I would do without Carlee at my left side. We have become inseparable."From the day she entered the Zallar household, the Zallars have unanimously embraced her as one of their own. Carlee became a playmate for Andy, the only child in the family.

"Steve's the daddy, Patty's the mommy, Andy's the older brother, and Carlee's the little sister. I consider her my four-legged daughter," Patty said. "I take care of her just like I take care of my son. I wouldn't give her up for anything in the world."


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