I first met Larry and Eloise Kontz at the Strawberry Festival next to the ice cream truck. Their Labrador, Lou, was wearing a guide-dog harness -- so I asked if I could do a story. At that moment, Lou stuck his head into the nearby garbage container and came out with a face full of fudge sauce, which he immediately wiped all over Eloise.
Larry has a congenital, degenerative eye disease, which has left him totally blind. Now in their 50s, he and Eloise are retired and spend half the year living in Mexico. Finding himself increasingly dependent on Eloise, he began to think about a guide dog. He has had Lou for five years.
Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1952 to help veterans blinded during the Korean War. Based in San Rafael, Calif., the foundation receives no federal money, but is funded through donations. A trained guide dog is valued at $50,000. The foundation provides an annual stipend which pays all the expenses for the dogs except for food.
Guide Dogs for the Blind uses only puppies from their own breeding program. Labradors, golden retrievers and some German shepherds spend their first year in puppy-raising homes where they are given basic obedience training, love and lots of socialization.
At one year, the dogs return to the center for extensive evaluation where hearing, vision, hips, heart, everything is checked thoroughly. Behavior and intelligence are tested. These dogs must be outgoing and athletic. Only 40 percent of the year-old dogs are accepted into the training program. For those not accepted, there is a waiting list of people eager for them.
The intensive training program lasts from six to nine months and 15 to 30 dogs are in training at all times, each working exclusively with one of the five trainers. They are constantly evaluated to determine the kind of person with whom there would be a good match.
A person interested in a guide dog fills out a four-page application. This is followed by a phone interview. If it appears that this individual is a good candidate for a dog, a representative from Guide Dogs will visit the home. The care and well being of the dog is paramount. You have to be well enough physically to care for the dog and you must have a suitable home environment with a fenced yard. They must feel that the dog will be safe.
Before being accepted, Larry had to go through an orientation and mobility training program, which is provided by the state of Arizona, learning how to use the white cane and move around town alone.
Once accepted into the program, all expenses are paid. Larry was flown to San Rafael. He said the facility is like a five-star resort on 15 acres with a stream, gardens, great food and accommodations. Twelve to 15 people come into the program at one time. For the first three days, the dog trainers spend time with these candidates, analyzing their personalities, abilities and needs in order to properly match them with one of the available dogs. On the third night, the trainers meet and work out the matches.
Day four is Dog Day. Eloise remembers receiving e-mails from Larry. He was so excited about finally meeting this dog who would be his special partner for the next 10 years. Larry recalls meeting Lou and being told all about him: his color, special characteristics, breeding, parents and his birthday. It was a very emotional time.
Once the dog and new owner meet, they are together day and night. Training goes on six days a week, 15 hours a day for a month. The dog is on the leash all day and tethered next to the bed at night. The bonding has begun and togetherness is paramount. "It's all about the bonding," Larry said.
Classes throughout the day teach every aspect of owning and working with a guide dog. Nutrition, grooming and proper veterinary care are stressed. After a couple of days of leash training, the harness is introduced. The trainer walks closely behind, giving instructions.
Too soon, the frightening day arrives when the teams are taken to the center of San Rafael and told to find their way back to the guide-dog training center.
Specific instructions are given to walk so many blocks this way and that way. You must pay attention and put your trust in your dog. A guide dog is not trained to figure out traffic. He stops at all corners. You must listen for the traffic and then put your foot out, feeling for the curb. You direct the dog to move forward. If he senses that something is not safe, he will stop. He watches for obstacles and stops to let you know something is there.
"You come out of school with a basic way to travel safely with your dog. As time goes on, you and your dog develop your own process, which works better for both of you," Larry said. "Through the harness, I can feel his body moving up, over or around something. You have to have a lot of faith in your dog. It takes time to develop that trust. It is scary to walk down a sidewalk where there are poles, low hanging branches, signs, garbage cans and planters. The dog will maneuver around these in a way to make you aware of them."
Lou is 7 years old and when the harness is off, he is a normal, playful family pet. When the harness is put on, his personality changes and he is serious and dedicated to the task at hand. A friend of Larry's also has a guide dog.
When the two dogs are in harness, they ignore each other. With the harnesses off, they play like puppies.
Larry is willing to share his story because he wants people to know about the guide dog program and realizes that you do not need to be totally blind to qualify. A person with mobility problems or where limited sight inhibits their ability to be reasonably independent and part of the community can qualify.
Watch for part two -- "Living with a guide dog." Anyone interested in more information about Guide Dogs for the Blind can call (800) 295-4050 or www.guidedogs.com.
Christy Powers s a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at cpwrather@ earthlink.net or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.