By Shanna Stichler
Hello again, Vetality readers! It’s been a while, but this time I have a personal story for you all. It’s about a guide dog school, a man, and his very special new furry friend. Helping people find a new canine companion is one of the ultimate rewards of service dog training. It fills my heart with joy every time I help with such a placement. This time was particularly special though because I got to help my own grandfather receive a beautiful and well-trained new friend, and got a career changed leader dog an amazing forever home. Everybody won in this case, but let me start from the beginning.
Over the past few years, my grandpa has been considering a service dog for himself. He has Parkinson’s disease, so he needed a dog to help him retrieve dropped objects and other tasks primarily in the home. It took a while to figure out the best place to obtain a dog for him. There are lots of organizations who could have placed a dog with him, but they have waiting list that are years long in many cases. Ultimately, we decided to check with an organization called Leader Dogs for the Blind, located in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Leader Dogs is dedicated to training guides for people who are blind or visually impaired, but only about half the dogs they start training for that role actually make the grade and graduate with a client. Dogs who can’t become Leader Dogs are called career change dogs because they often move on to other kinds of work. If they don’t become service dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness, like mobility impairment or PTSD, they may become detection dogs or do search and rescue. They may also become incredible pets because of all the training and socialization skills they have learned while training to be Future Leader Dogs.
In any case, we decided that a nice young dog with such an extensive foundation would be the best choice for my grandfather’s situation, so we contacted Leader Dogs’ to find out if they could help locate a suitable match. They have staff who work to place career change dogs, and these people were more than willing to evaluate their dogs and let us know when they had a potential candidate. Two months later they found just the right dog, a lovely yellow Labrador Retriever/Golden Retriever cross-breed named Fergie.
They chose Fergie for my grandfather because she is naturally calm but enjoys learning and is very social. She doesn’t take advantage of new handlers and tries her best to be a good girl. She didn’t quite have the personality to be a Leader Dog, but she loves retrieving and they knew she could easily learn that task. Also, she would be fine living in a calmer environment as long as she could be with her person.
We were all very excited to meet Fergie, especially my grandparents! So around mid-February, we drove from Nebraska to Michigan to pick her up. The trip was about 800 miles each way, but career change dogs can’t fly in the cabin of an airplane, so my parents and I needed to plan a road trip in order to get her. For logistical reasons, Diamond, who is my own guide dog, couldn’t come along this time.
The drive to Leader Dogs’ beautiful campus was snowy, but otherwise uneventful. We got there around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, and staff gave us a tour of their amazing facilities before we sat down to meet Fergie. Leader Dogs renovated their kennels and training center in 2014, and they did an incredible job. I’ve never been in such a peaceful kennel environment, but the best part for me was the indoor training area which exactly duplicates downtown Rochester, where the majority of training takes place in good weather. The indoor replica makes it possible for instructors to train dogs even in sub-zero temps, so their dogs don’t fall behind due to the frigid Michigan winters. It was really incredible, and I need a place like this in my life.
Eventually, we ended up in the Canine Receiving Room, and a Leader Dog employee from Dog Placement brought Fergie to meet us! The staff clearly had spent a lot of time with this dog and knew her well. They told us about all the commands she knew, gave us info about her personality, and told us where she was raised as a puppy. Meanwhile, Fergie gave us lots of wags and kisses. She carried a toy in her mouth whenever she could and repeatedly showed it to everyone.
After getting to know Fergie a bit, I spent some time with her doing obedience and getting a feel for her. She was very responsive and controllable. We also took the opportunity to browse Leader Dogs’ gift shop, so I could purchase a few things for Diamond
Eventually, we had to say goodbye to our Leader Dog friends and started the long drive home. Fergie did very well ride in the car. We stayed at a dog-friendly hotel, and our new friend settled down well. She didn’t try to misbehave at all and seemed pretty content to just hang out with us.
One thing I should mention is that Fergie was raised in Leader Dogs’ prison puppy program, where non-violent offenders have the chance to live in a special unit and raise puppies while incarcerated giving them responsibility with a big purpose. While I don’t know anything about her puppy raiser, I can say that they did an excellent job! Fergie knew everything she should have and isn’t afraid of anything. I was really impressed and would love to spend some time learning more specifics about the prison program. Look forward to more info about that in a future post.
We got back home to Nebraska late Saturday afternoon, so Fergie spent the night with us and went to her permanent home Sunday morning. Again, she did great. She was very excited to meet her new people, and the feeling was mutual! I spent a couple of days with the new team getting them settled and teaching them protocols for feeding, relieving, and obedience commands. With a more traditional guide dog placement, I would spend several days working very intensively with the team, but that wasn’t necessary in this case. By the time I left, Fergie seemed to feel very comfortable with her new home and new family. Fergie has begun learning to retrieve dropped objects as well. She is a natural, picking up on the game very quickly. My grandfather loves his new companion and her lovely personality and sweet face bring smiles and sunshine into their home. My grandmother loves her as much as my grandpa and has gotten past the fact that she does shed. We at Tevra have really enjoyed working with Leader Dogs for the Blind and especially Fergie! She and her new partner are a great match, and I especially wish them all the best on their adventures together! Later this month, we’ll post more in depth about prison puppies and why they are fantastic as well as provide more information on adopting a career changed or retired service dog, and why everyone should consider them for awesome active companions. In the meantime, for more information on Leader Dogs in general, feel free to visit www.leaderdog.org