By MORGAN MANNS
A furry black friend was the highlight of a Fostoria Lions Club gathering Thursday evening at Good Shepherd Home.
Barkley, an 18-month old standard Poodle, demonstrated his skills as a Pilot Dog by walking blindfolded volunteers up and down the sidewalk outside of the home.
“When most people get that blindfold on, they freak out,” said Steve Garrabrant, Pilot Dog trainer and instructor. “They take their sight for granted. Their balance is different, they walk slower. … When they’re walking with the dog, they think they’re running and become scared. When in reality, they’re going at a normal everyday pace.”
Pilot Dogs are specifically trained for the seeing-impaired. They go through six months of training to understand voice commands, maneuver around obstacles, go through revolving doors, take steps, elevators and escalators, task curbs or turns and safely cross streets. After six months, they are fitted with a compatible student, or seeing-impaired individual.
A first-time student will stay at the facility for 28 days while getting to know their canine companion. Students who have had a Pilot Dog before, but need a new one due to an illness or old age of the dog, must stay at the facility for 12 days to introduce themselves to their new Pilot Dog.
Garrabrant said the dogs are taught to stop when traffic is moving and that it is safe to proceed across a street when that traffic is not moving.
“They can’t see traffic lights or the ‘walk’ and ‘do not walk’ flashing lights,” he said. “They’re trained to see moving traffic. And after much repetition, they will understand where the student wants to go through voice commands.”
Garrabrant said he recommends a sighted individual go with the student and the Pilot Dog on their first few outings so the dog understands where to go.
The dogs are required to take a ‘walk test’ to officially graduate from training. The Pilot Dog will take a blindfolded trainer a mile through downtown Columbus, inside a department store, up and down stairs, etc. with another trainer spotting them for safety reasons. If the dog is successful in his test, they will be listed as ready to go to a student.
Barkley, and canines like him, are trained and sometimes bred at Pilot Dogs, Inc., 625 W. Town St. on the west side of Columbus. The facility trains roughly 150 units, or dog and student combinations, per year, according to Garrabrant.
In addition to Poodles, they offer Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, and Vizslas. Labs are the most adaptable, Garrabrant said; however, currently, Poodles are the most popular because they don’t shed, thus being more suitable for students with allergies.
The facility stay, training and the Pilot Dog are all free of charge, according to Garrabrant. Pilot Dogs, Inc. receives most of their funding through donations.
Their biggest supporter since their founding in 1950 is the Lions Club, bringing in roughly a quarter of a million dollars per year. Each unit costs roughly $9,500.
The facility also has a puppy program, which places a canine into the home of a previously selected family, at 6-8 weeks of age.
The family will raise the pup, exposing him to people, traffic, noises, and anything a blind person may encounter, Garrabrant said. When the dog turns one year old, he will be brought back to the facility for training.
According to Garrabrant, one out of five dogs make the program.
“Sometimes they don’t get the exposure they need to feel calm and make safe decisions around people or traffic,” he said. “These dogs make great pets because they are afraid of traffic and noises.”
He said they are taken back to their breeder or the family that raised them for adoption.
If neither home is compatible, the dog will then be placed on an adoption list for members of the public.
To be eligible for a Pilot Dog, the student must be legally blind and old enough to and physically capable of caring for the dog. Garrabrant said their youngest and oldest students were 15 and 90 years of age, respectively.
“We’ve had individuals all over Ohio, the United States and even some from foreign countries come for our dogs,” Garrabrant said, adding that the average service life of a Pilot Dog is approximately seven years, making the canine about eight years old when he is ready to retire from his services. “They amaze me a lot of times. They’re very smart and obedient and loyal. They really do bring with them companionship and security.”
For more information, to apply for a Pilot Dog or to raise a puppy in the program, visit www.pilotdogs.org or call 614-221-6367.