It was a cloudy, misty morning this past Saturday as 11 people representing three Lions Clubs boarded a van in Canfield for a journey to Columbus to tour the facilities of Pilot Dogs Inc. I was fortunate, along with my wife Joyce, to take this trip along with Lions Jack Kochansky and John Facemyer, also from the Austintown Lions Club; Shirley and Randy Boyles and Dee and Jim Tripp from the new West Mahoning County Lions Club; Ed and Linda Ellis, and our driver, Ted Filmer, from the Canfield Lions Club.
We arrived at the facility shortly after 10 a.m. and were met by Jay Gray, executive director of Pilot Dogs. Gray has been part of this program for more than 30 years, and his late father, John Gray, was director many years before that. Pilot dogs, or guide dogs, have been around for a long time. Pilot Dogs Inc. was established in 1950 to simply train and furnish pilot dogs to guide the blind. It is a non-profit organization and serves 150 individual students per year.
Our tour group was totally amazed by the facility and the total dedication from staff, trainers, the blind students and of course, the dogs themselves in training as well. Dog breeds that are used at the facility are doberman pinschers, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, poodles, boxers and vizslas.
We were also totally amazed as we talked to some blind students and even got to meet their dogs as they trained together to become a team. Their own independence depends on their dog and their reactions to many problems that could easily occur. Blind students come from all over our country and abroad for a pilot dog from this well-recommended facility.
When the blind student arrives, they spend the first two days without a dog but practicing with the dog harness. Then they immediately begin to take care of their dog, as the new master bathes the dog. This is the first lesson in dog care.
A good thing to remember about the facility is that Pilot Dogs gives its trained guide dogs to the sightless at absolutely no charge. This service includes, naturally, the pilot dog, four weeks' room and board for the new student. All equipment and round-trip transportation are provided for the qualified student. The cost to the facility is approximately $9,000. Private donations and Lions Club donations keep this facility operational.
The qualifications are to be legally blind and physically and mentally capable of handling and caring for the dog. An individual is considered legally blind if the visual acuity in their better eye is 20/200 with the best possible correction, or if their visual field is 20 degrees or less. The first-time student will participate in a four-week course. Due to a dog's retirement age at close nine years of service, the student is then eligible to come back for another dog with a two-week training course.
Usually, a puppy begins its training at 12 to 15 months. Training at the school is a five-month program, and the puppies are trained to work under all conditions that the blind person might encounter. When the student and the dog get together, short walks are taken with the trainer, then the training becomes more difficult, and eventually both dog and student can maneuver through stores and travel on and off buses and cross streets and even thoroughfares in Columbus by themselves.
Our tour group even got into the action as Sam, a golden retriever, was harnessed by Gray, and most of our tour got a chance to be blindfolded and let Sam lead them on sidewalks close to the facility. Our little group got to see first hand the sleeping accommodations for students and their dogs, and of course there are many rules that they must follow along with learning situations and courtyard bathroom habits for the dogs, schedules and pacing and grooming. Matching the dog with the student is very important looking for a match of personalities to make a good trust and bond.
Right now, the facility needs puppy raisers, and they have found that home-raised dogs tend to have a higher potential to become pilot dogs. The pups are placed in volunteer foster homes to be raised by adults and youths. The objective of the program is for the puppy to be well socialized as they become more confident and comfortable to adjust to different situations. Pilot dogs are obtained through donations and the schools breeding program. Nearly half of the dogs graduate in their schooling.
I have just scratched the surface of the many things we learned at Pilot Dogs. New advancements are constantly appearing at the facility including training the blind with new GPS systems enabling the blind and their dog to even get better in their quest for a quality life.
Private donations and Lions Club donations keep this facility operational. Thus it was a very enjoyable day "going to the dogs."