Blind World Magazine

Leader Dogs for the Blind prepares dogs for the visually impaired.

December 09, 2005.
Associated Press.

ROCHESTER, Mich. (AP) - Inside her dorm room at the Leader Dogs for the Blind complex, Amy Bryan opens a drawer and shows off gifts she bought for the dog she will soon receive.

"I have a little blanket for her," says the Denver native, "and her own collar and leash."

Bryan, 32, is partially sighted. She does all right during daylight, but doesn't go out alone at night.

Born three months premature, she was placed in an incubator, where too much oxygen destroyed one eye and left her with partial vision in the other. The upbeat blonde talks of starting a new life with her sister in Phoenix, where the two will be selling clothing.

"Leader Dogs staff work to match students with a dog that fits their personality," she says. "I'm really outgoing, energetic, sporty. I have a master's degree in political science. I'm a feisty political girl."

There's a knock at her door. A trainer brings in Holly Bear, a 23-month-old energetic female golden retriever, just what Bryan had hoped for.

"You are a good snausage!" exclaims Bryan, as the 66-pound dog jumps and wiggles around. "She's gorgeous, you wild doggy. She's excited. I love her. Thank you for giving me a golden. You're a cute doggy, yes you are."

A few doors down from Bryan's room, David Anspach, 38, of Florida, fidgets in his chair. This is Anspach's third visit to Leader Dogs.

His first dog died and his second retired, he says.

Anspach laughs at his emotional state, "It's the fear of the unknown, like your first date."

Anspach lost his sight to diabetes in 1991. A computer programmer, he married a blind woman just weeks before coming to Rochester.

"This is a big month," he says.

Anspach calls the time at Leader Dogs a vacation from the real world.

"Everything is accessible (for blind guests), the food is fabulous," he says. "And it allows you to focus on your dog."

Anspach isn't fussy about what breed he gets, he says. The organization uses Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, crossbreeds of those dogs, and occasionally standard poodles.

"My stomach is doing knots," Anspach says.

Then, the knock comes, and a trainer brings in a sleek 17-month-old male German shepherd named Maddox.

Anspach is quickly smothered with dog kisses.

"Hi, yes, I love you, too, you silly," he says to the dog. "How you doing, Mr. Handsome Boy?"

The dogs won't leave their owners' sides for the next three weeks.

At the Leader Dogs center, students sit at tables waiting to walk around downtown Rochester with their dogs and a trainer.

Bryan confesses a first outing earlier in the day didn't go that well.

"It's hard to get the dogs used to you," she says. "It's a big adjustment. I've got a lot of work ahead of me."

Bryan was concerned Holly Bear - splayed on her belly on the floor - wasn't listening.

"We have to establish who's in charge," she says.

Nearby, Anspach sits and pets Maddox.

"I'm really happy," he says. "The first trip out went really well."

On a walk around town, Anspach's trainer Jamie Togal doesn't even hold onto the dog's harness. But at one point, Anspach walks into a parking meter and bangs his knee.

"He tried to tell you," Togal says to Anspach. "Let your dog lead you."

Anspach says he's used to being led by his prior dog, an 80-pound Labrador.

"Like with a new car, the driving is different," he says. "They (the dogs) all lead different."

Over the weeks of training, the students have walked a rural road without sidewalks, negotiated grocery store aisles and used Detroit public transportation and escalators.

In the food court at a Macomb County mall, the Leader Dogs students chat and wait to walk around the mall with a trainer. Bryan's Holly Bear is wearing a gentle leader - a strap worn around the muzzle that allows the owner to control a dog's head.

Bryan looks slightly weary, and she confesses the experience has had hard moments, times when she was wondering if the active golden retriever was going to be the right dog for her.

"I was afraid of the dog at first," she says.

Finally, a trainer taught Bryan how do to a hard correction, a move that involves jerking firmly on the harness with both hands.

Meanwhile, Anspach talks of home.

"Three weeks is a long time being away," he says. He brags about his dogs smooth movements.

"It's like going from a Volkswagen to a Cadillac," he says.

Anspach appears pleased overall and offers advice to anyone considering applying for a Leader Dog.

"Take it one step at a time. Be prepared that you will have good days and bad days," he says. "It's tough in the beginning but, if you put the work in, you'll have rewards at the end."

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