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Lions' leader dogs are a blessing to owners

Dogs are considered to be "man's best friend," but for certain people dogs are much more than that. Sometimes dogs can lead the way to a better future.

Leader Dogs for the Blind help enhance the lives of those who are visually impaired.

According to Dick Kimball, Lions member and district chair of Leader Dogs for the Blind, Lions International started the program in 1939. It was started by three Detroit, MI area Lions to help a friend.

Puppies for the leader dog program come from selected breeders all over the country.

"Once puppies are weaned at about seven to eight weeks they go to volunteer puppy raisers and they are kept as pets, but there is a very specific training regimen that these pups go through," explained Kimball. "If you are a puppy raiser that dog is with you for 24 hours a day. Where you go, the dog goes."

Volunteer "puppy raisers" also have the honor of giving the future leader dog a name.

After about a year, at about 15 to 17 months old, the dogs are sent to the leader dog training facility in Rochester, MI. The facility is a 14-acre full service campus.

Once in Rochester, the dogs go through a four-month training to become a leader dog.

The dogs go through basic obedience and dog guide skills as well as more advanced training such as traffic responsibility.

"They're your eyes and that's what they are trained to do," said Kimball.

According to Kimball, about 70 percent of the dogs are Labrador retrievers and about 30 percent are golden retrievers.

Qualities that a leader dog must possess include accepting everyone as friendly, showing confidence in a variety of situations and being relaxed and content in many settings. Dogs, which do not meet the qualifications, become family pets.

According to Kimball, leader dog owners must meet certain qualifications as well, such as being white cane mobile.

Every month 24 participants, who qualify for a dog, attend a 26-day training session at the Rochester facility. Participants stay on the campus and learn how to work with a dog. After the training session participants return home with their new companion.

Kimball said, participants are evaluated and matched with a dog based on personality and needs. Participants range in age from 18 through 90.

Around 14,000 student-dog teams have graduated from the leader dog program. Approximately, 300 teams graduate a year.

There is also follow-up assistance for participants needing additional support.

"These dogs go everywhere," said Kimball. "They are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act."

According to Kimball, there are dogs from the leader dog program in 37 countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.

"It costs $38,000 to train a dog from birth to graduation," explained Kimball. But, there is no cost to the participant.

Leader Dogs for the Blind's annual budget is $11 million and 62 percent of that goes into training.

According to Kimball, Leader Dogs for the Blind is completely funded by donations. Lions worldwide contribute to approximately 20 percent of annual revenues.

Other programs being offered to assist the visually impaired are the Accelerated Mobility Program (AMP), which is an intense cane mobility training, GPS Training with Trekker (handheld computers with talking digital maps), a Work Counts program (career development) and a deaf-blind program.

Kimball added this is the only program in the world that trains dogs for people who are deaf and blind.

"If you see these dogs work it's truly amazing," said Kimball.

Bunny and Baker

Next week Bunny Tabatt, a field representative for Leader Dogs for the Blind, and her leader dog Baker will be at the Laporte, Nevis and Park Rapids schools giving presentations.

According to Kimball, Tabatt will talk to students about the challenges she faces being blind, what her dog means to her and about the Leader Dogs for the Blind program.

Tabatt, who is from Little Falls, started going blind in 1970. In 1981 she went to the Lighthouse for the Blind in Duluth where she learned to read Braille and walk with a white cane.

In 1984 she received her first leader dog. In 1985 she enrolled at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul, graduated in 1987 as a physical therapist assistant and began working at St. Gabriel's campus hospital. She retired from the hospital in 2004. Now Tabatt travels as a field representative sharing her story.

Tabatt will be speaking in Nevis Thursday, April 3 as well as in Laporte and Park Rapids Friday, April 4.

Those who are interested in meeting Tabatt and Baker should attend the Leader Dogs for the Blind fish dinner fundraiser from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 5 at the American Legion in Park Rapids.

All proceeds from the fundraiser will go to benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind.