Welcome to Cycling for Leader Dogs.

Cycling for Leader Dogs is a trans-America solo bicycle tour from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. The goal of this effort is to increase awareness and raise money in support of Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Follow us on FACEBOOK. Keep track of Lion Mark's progress through his ONLINE CYCLING JOURNALS.
Curious what his route will be? Take a look at the the TRIP ROUTE MAP. Have questions? Send Lion Mark an EMAIL.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Learning about Leader Dogs for the Blind

It is hard to believe it, but April has arrived. With less than ten weeks until the departure date, it is sometimes hard to imagine how everything is going to get done. All of the preparations have been enjoyable, but one so far has risen above all the rest... Our visit last week to Leader Dog headquarters in Michigan.

In order to be better Ambassadors for LDB, we were asked to fly out to their headquarters in Rochester Hills, Michigan for an up close and personal tour.  Quite simply it was a life changing experience for both Debbie (my wife) and me.  The complexity of the combined effort of all the clients, their families, staff and volunteers to support and train the team (the client and the Leader Dog) is both comprehensive and extensive.  Some people might think that you simply teach a dog some basic habits, give the blind or visually impaired person a few pointers, connect the two with a harness and call it good.  This couldn't be further from the truth.

The effort to breed, whelp, raise and train a healthy and skilled dog is just one half of a complex process, but complicated none-the-less.  Teams of dog breeders work with LDB staff to bring the puppies into the world.  Once born and ready to leave their mother, the puppies get a full wellness check so they can move on to the next phase of their training.  Teams of volunteer puppy raisers spend about a year raising these future Leader Dogs and work tirelessly to prepare them for their formal training back at Leader Dog headquarters.  Twenty percent of all puppies are actually raised by convicts as part of a rehabilitation process.  No convict involved in this program has ever been sent back to prison for committing a crime upon release.  This says a lot to me about the power of this work and the impact it can have on people.

The next stage in the process is where teams of professional trainers on the Leader Dog staff now take the young dogs (around 14 months of age) and begin an intense five month training regimen to teach each future Leader Dog the skills necessary to complete the rigors of being a working dog.  This is a challenging process where about half of the dogs show to be incapable of meeting the standards LDB has for a Leader Dog.  The dogs judged to not meet expectations often times go back to the volunteer(s) who raised them or given to a good home from a long waiting list.  Those dogs who make it through each round of review receives more and more specific training relative to the person they will eventually team up with.  The expertise of the instructor and extensive application materials (i.e. written descriptions, video documentation and client specific information) are critical to the Leader Dogs ultimate success in their service.  The years of dedicated service and experience by the staff is incredible and we were extremely impressed by their knowledge and passion for their work.

All the while the Leader Dog is going through its process, the client is preparing for their role as a member of the pending team (the Leader Dog and the client).  Each person has different needs and unique conditions (i.e. locale, work and travel requirements, etc.) that are all considered in the matching process.  This work requires the client to make some adjustments and to learn to take care of the Leader Dog that will work for and with them for many years.   As anyone who has raised a dog knows, each dog is different and no matter how well they are trained by the professionals, the knowledge and skill of the human are key to working successfully together.  This preparation, whether it is the client's first or one of many Leader Dogs takes a lot of work.

Once the team (client and Leader Dog) come together on what is known as "Issue Day", it takes weeks of hard work and training to help the team grow stronger.  It all starts with what is known as a "first walk" where the Leader Dog and client (with the support of their instructor) begins the team building process.  These walks become increasingly more challenging and include trips away from campus to expose the team to as many different situations as possible.  This effort not only allows the team to learn how to work together, but it is part of the process to build trust between the two.

Once the team leaves campus, the Leader Dogs team continues to provide all the necessary problem solving support necessary and on-going training through instructors who are out in the field working with clients.  What results are strong team of Leader Dogs and Clients who are able to travel freely and safely through their K-9, human partnership.  We had the chance to experience many aspects of this process first hand over a three day tour and were deeply moved by what we learned.  Both Debbie and I believe more than ever that this life-changing experience has allowed us to see Leader Dogs through an entirely new lens.  Cycling for Leader Dogs has become much more to us than a one-time effort in support this incredibly important work, but rather it is the first of many efforts we plan on working on to support Leader Dogs for the Blind and all those this wonderful organization serves.

Each Leader Dog gets a unique tag back at the beginning of its formal training at around the age of fourteen months.  The tag is worn until it dies, whereby it is returned to Leader Dogs for the Blind.  This tag was worn by a Leader Dog named Lacey (a yellow lab) who served her owner nine days short of twelve years (average working life of a Leader Dog is seven to ten years).   Lacey lived with her owner for another six months after retirement before her health sharply declined.  She lived a productive and dedicated life as a working dog.  Leader Dogs for the Blind has asked that I carry Lacey's tag with me while I prepare for and during this trip and I accepted this request with great honor.  I feel that even though Lacey is no longer with us, she will be with me in spirit and serving as my Leader Dog.  I hope that I get to meet all those who read this blog post at some point in this trip so I can share with you my Leader Dog named Lacey.  Please don't be shy to ask me about her.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow. :) I wish you well on your trip and hope we can come meet you at some point in your journey with our FLD (future Leader Dog) Gracie. :) She is our ninth puppy and this is such an amazing journey we take each time we take a puppy into our home. There is nothing like seeing the miracle they can become. :)