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Premier matchmaking: Teaching interdependence between dog and blind human

RIVERVIEW

Picture yourself venturing out at night, down an unknown street, blindfolded. An occasional car flies by from one end of the dark to the other; the intermittent pockets of deathly silence offer no support.

Difficult? Nerve-racking? Downright petrifying?

Not for Jeff Redford.

"Amazing," says Redford, 61, for whom the above scenario represents reality.

His world went dark bit by bit years ago. It was difficult, scary, miserable and more — until he met Don.

In what might as well be another life, Redford was a sniper in Vietnam, a guard for President Richard Nixon, an employee of the Marine Corps' prison system, a pipe fitter and the owner of a barbecue restaurant.

Then it started. He lost night vision and depth perception. He went blind in the right eye and as good as blind in the left.

Stepping out of the house alone became unthinkable. Years went by. And then a couple of months ago he met Don, who taught him that a dark unknown street didn't have to be a source of fear.

The large black Labrador, a trained guide dog, was exactly what Redford needed.

"You realize that you've turned your life over to a dog," he says.

But he knows it's only to get his independence back.

Redford and Don came together through a program called Paws for Patriots, which seeks to serve veterans with limited or no vision.

The program was started by Southeastern Guide Dogs, a Palmetto-based nonprofit that breeds and trains dogs and gives them away to the visually impaired for free.

Relying entirely on charitable donations, the organization boasts being one of only 12 certified guide dog schools in the country and the only one of its kind in the Southeastern United States.

It has a simple but important mission: to provide people like Redford with another source of companionship and love, while enabling them to live with freedom and dignity.

Before Don came into his life, Redford depended on his family for everything. Drivers ran over his cane. Kids tripped over it and fell.

"Now, with him," he says, nodding toward Don sprawled silently at his feet, "I just go."

• • •

"Good girl!" Janet Deluca, 46, tells Elsie every time the shiny black Lab stops at a curb or skirts a small puddle.

The two are out together for the very first time, leading one another along a meandering path carved out specially for such walks at Southeastern's 23-acre campus.

Deluca is one of the latest batch of nine "students" at Southeastern. They stay at the facility for nearly a month, getting to know their new dogs and practicing being out and about with them.

This is Deluca's first time with a guide dog. Her eyes were once perfect. But after an autoimmune disease called Behcet's took hold, her vision was gone.

She learned to rely on a cane and told herself that one day she would be ready to trust a guide dog.

Nearly 16 years later, that day has finally arrived.

"She's such a sweet partner," Deluca says, smiling broadly, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses.

For Elsie, too, getting to Deluca was a process. Like the other dogs at Southeastern, she went through months of extensive training, learning 40 different commands and practicing them relentlessly.

When her harness is off, she can run, play, just be a regular dog. But the moment the harness is back on, the canine knows she's on the job.

She has learned to stop at every curb, find doors and exits, and most important, be responsible for someone's life.

On their first walk together, it is clear that Deluca and Elsie are a team. When a familiar face or smell distracts Elsie, Deluca's firm "no" is all she needs to get back to the task. In turn, every time Deluca drifts off to one side, Elsie gently pushes her back to the middle of the path.

They need some more time to get used to each other, but Deluca is patient. Ready.

The list of things the dog's help will enable her to do now seems endless. She talks of freedom and self-reliance, of traveling to new places, of telling others like her how her life will change.

As the walk ends, Elsie guides her to a door.

Deluca goes in, takes off her glasses and dabs her wet eyes.

"Can I cry now?" she says, with the smile that never left her face. "I just want to cry."

• • •

You can't hug a cane.

Hearing that testimonial from her students gives Leanne Gossner a reason to come to work every day.

For Gossner, a canine trainer at Southeastern who also teaches people to use guide dogs, the biggest challenge — and the biggest source of satisfaction — is ensuring that the dogs she trains will one day take care of someone.

"You see this new person," Gossner says of the transformation she sees in people once they get accustomed to using guide dogs. "They get to travel a street they've been terrified of forever."

But gaining that confidence can take awhile, says Dolores Myers.

Nearly 10 years ago, Myers, who was born blind, got her first guide dog through Southeastern.

But something wasn't completely right. She was still hesitant and scared.

One day, she was out with Jet, a black Lab, when it began to pour.

The rain drowned the city sounds she needed to hear.

Helpless, she tugged on the leash in her hand and muttered:

"Okay, Jet, do your thing. We've got to get home."

It wasn't a miraculous surge of trust and confidence. But it was the beginning of another life.

"It was kind of like an eye-opener," says Myers, 58. "I knew that he was going to get me home. We were soaked to death, but it was worth it."

Myers bade farewell to her cane.

And now that Jet is retired, she is back at Southeastern for his replacement.

She won't have it any other way.

Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc.

4210 77th St. E

Palmetto, FL 34221-9270

Call (941) 729-5665 or go online to guidedogs.org.

Premier matchmaking: Teaching interdependence between dog and blind human 10/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 4:30am]
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