Larry and Eloise Kontz met me at the dog park to continue our conversation about life with a guide dog. Lou was busy running with his buddies and chasing tennis balls. He is delighted to be able to hold three balls in his mouth at one time or a ball and a Frisbee.
Physical condition and diet were a big part of the training program at the Guide Dogs for the Blind School.
Teams are encouraged to walk 3 miles a day or the equivalent -- playing tug, chasing a ball or visiting the dog park. Scheduled, twice-a-day feedings with measured amounts of premium dog food are essential. Treats are discouraged. Love and attention are said to be reward enough. Lou does get a tiny treat on occasion for a job well done. His favorite treat, though, is ice cubes.
Representatives from Guide Dogs for the Blind keep in contact with each person who has one of their dogs, and make an annual visit to the home.
They want to see for themselves that the dog is happy, healthy and in good physical condition. One dog became obese and the owner was warned to thin the dog down. When the condition worsened, the dog was removed from the home. After a strict diet and exercise program, the dog was able to be placed in another home.
Larry is constantly monitoring Lou's weight. He was taught to feel the rib cage and the narrowing waist behind it. He recommends what he calls happy visits to the veterinarian. Lou went in monthly to be weighed. Now he runs in and jumps on the scale. If some treatment is needed, the clinic is not a frightening place.
Service dogs, by law, are allowed to go everywhere including restaurants, grocery stores and in the cabin of an airplane. Larry wants people to understand the working team and know how and when it is appropriate to approach. When the harness is on, the dog is working and should not be distracted. Do not make eye contact with the dog. Larry can tell when Lou is distracted -- his rear end moves back and forth due to his wagging tail. Someone has gained his attention. Larry will immediately ask Lou to sit or lie down to get his attention focused on him once again. When Larry and Lou are standing in line or a similar occasion when Lou is in harness, but not really working, announce yourself and ask if you can approach for a visit. If a dog is with you, stay away from any working dog as that is most distracting.
Guide dog work is very stressful, especially in large cities, crowds of people or where there is ambient noise. The dogs have to be able to handle that stress. Some think it is not fair to have a dog go to work with someone and spend many hours sitting under the desk. But the dogs love it. Larry sometimes feels that he is not doing enough to challenge Lou. Some days, the only working outing is walking to the mail box.
Larry keeps in touch with several classmates from the school, mostly by e-mail. One classmate was killed -- run down by a driver talking on a cell phone. The dog did his best to get the woman to safety and was distraught when he failed. Guide Dogs was able to rebuild the dog's confidence and place him again.
A group of sight-impaired people with guide dogs share experiences, problems and just visit via the Internet. Larry inputs information into his computer using the keyboard and then it reads back what he has written. The screen reading program reads everything on the screen. He can control the voice and its speed.
Larry enjoys the wide selection of books on tape, which are sent from the library in Phoenix. He does listen to television and the three of them enjoy going to a movie. Eloise is good about explaining any significant action.
In case you might be wondering, a service dog is not allowed to relieve himself when the harness is on. He is trained to relieve himself on leash and on command, wherever he is told to do it. The school taught a clever way for Larry to mark the spot and clean up after Lou.
Larry said that Lou makes friends everywhere. Particularly for a sight impaired person living alone, the dog will attract people to you.
"So many people are afraid to approach someone with a disability. Blindness is a disability, not the essence of a person," Larry said. "Treat them the same as you would any other person. I am happy, healthy, have a wonderful wife and a great life. The fact that I am blind is a very small part of it and certainly not the emphasis."
When you approach Larry, tell him who you are. Once he gets to know you, he is great at recognizing voices but it is always good to identify yourself.
Even if Lou is not working, he wants to be with Larry and follows him everywhere. Having the relationship Larry and Eloise have with Lou, it is upsetting to them when they hear of someone wanting to get rid of a dog -- offering it free to a good home. They understand that dogs are social animals and if they are not allowed to be social, they can become neurotic. Dogs love to be loved. When a dog misbehaves and gets yelled at, it is unhappy. Once he understands what you expect, he loves being able to please and get a little praise for doing well. Larry added, "A disciplined dog is a happy dog."
Larry is always willing to talk with anyone about the guide dog program. The dog can change your life, giving you the opportunity to get out and be a part of the community.
In last week's column, the headline mistakenly stated that the Kontzs live in Pine, but actually, they live in the heart of Payson. Sorry about that.
Christy Powers is a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry AZ 85544.