Blind World Magazine

Leader Dogs serve as eyes for the blind.

November 30, 2005.
Gateway Newspapers - USA.

After fostering Holly, a future Leader Dog for the Blind, for 10 months, Debra and Don Kaminski faced the bittersweet task of returning their precious pooch to the Michigan-based training facility where she would be paired with a sightless companion.

The Bridgeville couple's 16-year-old daughter, Patti, offered several alternative plans including switching Holly with a look-a-like, fleeing to Canada and cloning the beloved canine, but ultimately the Kaminskis headed west and delivered their four-legged miracle to someone who desperately needed one.

"It was very difficult to return her," Debra says. "You know you have to -- you're under contract and the dog is never your property -- but it threw us topsy-turvy. I cried buckets of tears."

Since its formation in 1939 by three Lions Club members, Leader Dogs for the Blind has graduated more than 13,000 dogs from is rigorous training program.

The dogs, personable breeds such as Doberman pinschers, golden and Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and standard poodles, are bred at the Rochester, Mich. center.

When they are approximately 7- to 8-weeks old, the dogs are sent to volunteer families from across the United States who teach them basic commands and socializing skills for about a year. There are approximately 65 to 75 breeders living in volunteer homes at any given time.

For the Kaminskis, Holly was a late Christmas present. After two years on the waiting list, the clan finally picked up the pup on Dec. 27, 2004. Debra, who carries a family history of vision impairment, saw fostering a Leader Dog as a small way to give back to her fellow man ... and convince her husband to take another shot at pet ownership.

Several years before, the family dog battled a severe case of separation anxiety and went "Cujo" on the Kaminskis' house; clawing furniture and christening carpets. The destruction was enough to wear on the nerves of even the most ardent animal lover.

After a few years of living in a doggie-free environment, Debra longed to hear the pitter-patter of little paws. She investigated several fostering programs and decided on Leader Dogs -- the second dog guide school founded in the U.S. -- for its professionalism and dedication to the blind.

Through regular Lions Club donations, contributions from private citizens and endowment interest, Leader Dogs provides legally blind persons, 18 years of age or older who are of sound mind, with a guide dog at no charge. The organization absorbs the $35,000-per-dog cost.

Debra and Don were responsible for training, feeding, grooming and socializing Holly under a strict set of Leader Dog guidelines; rules the dog blissfully ignored at first.

The waggly tailed pup chewed through five pairs of Debra's shoes, unraveled a hand-hooked rug and ransacked the rooms of Patti and her 15-year-old sister Amanda, gobbling up ponytail holders and Beanie Babies like Milk Bones.

To tame Holly's wild streak, the Kaminskis enrolled her in a training program at a local Petsmart store where she learned how to sit, stay, walk on a leash and hobnob with her fellow furballs.

Eventually, Holly joined her temporary family on trips to the grocery store, bank, post office and airport. She dined in the same restaurants and even hitched a ride on a Port Authority Transit bus -- all while wearing a blue "Leader Dog in Training" bandanna and vest.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as hotels, restaurants, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls and sports facilities, are required to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises.

This all-access pass gives the dogs the real world experience they'll need when they're guiding a blind person through day-to-day activities.

During the course of Holly's basic training, the Kaminskis filled out questionnaires and checked in with a "puppy counselor" once a month to make sure the pooch was making progress.

The family also went on outings with six other Leader Dogs in the area, including Holly's littermate, Samson, who lived in nearby McDonald, Pa.

Holly, a star pupil, was called back to the Leader Dog headquarters after only 10 months to start a four-phased training program, including a 26-day, getting-to-know-you crash course with her new owner.

"A day hasn't passed that I don't think of her," Debra says. "I've had a number of dogs throughout my lifetime, but I never bonded as closely with one as I did with Holly. She's one-in-a-million."

When she graduates from Leader Dogs in 2006, Holly and her classmates will appear in the organization's quarterly newsletter.

The Kaminskis will also receive a snapshot of their pride-and-joy with her grateful owner.

Debra, Don, Patti and Amanda are looking forward to fostering another Leader Dog in the coming months. They encourage other experienced pet owners to open their hearts and homes to the cause or, if that's not an option, open their wallets.

"To have a dog for a year or less is such a small thing, especially when you love animals, but it makes a big impact on a person's life," Debra says.

"I wanted my girls to feel proud of themselves and to think about others. It was frustrating at times but in the end it was so worth it."

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