A dog is a man's best friend, and for many families impacted by visual impairments and other disabilities, dogs may even act as life savers, helping children succeed through increased mobility and independence.
As the President of OccuPaws Guide Dog Association, which provides visual companion dogs to children and adults in Wisconsin and adjoining states free of cost, Barb Schultze has witnessed the powerful and life-changing effects dogs can have on children with visual impairments. "Visual companion dogs can truly empower visually impaired children just by improving their gait or pace. Little things like teaching a child how to walk consistently and at a steady pace can affect where they go, who they talk to and how the fit into to their surrounding environments."
But in Barb's experience, a visual companion dog's impact does not end there. "For kids, there are so many other benefits to using a visual companion dog that aren't related to blindness. These dogs offer companionship - they keep kids company when they need it most. They teach children about ownership and how to be accountable for another life. And, there's a huge social aspect to consider. I've seen kids, who have in the past struggled to make friends, talk to other children about their blindness because they feel comfortable with their visual companion dog. These dogs can help facilitate important friendships that are fundamental to a healthy childhood."
As the building bridges to independence and mobility for blind youth, visual companion dogs provide children opportunities to explore the world around them. And at OccuPaws, it is critical to select dogs that are well-suited for the important task at hand. "For children, dogs have to be extremely healthy and very well socialized - aggressive dogs are taken out of the program. About 99% of the dogs selected are Labradors."
Training begins early for dogs that are part of the program. Puppies begin obedience training when they are eight weeks-old, and trainers evaluate how well they handle simple instructions like "sit," "down," and "stay." "Throughout puppyhood, these dogs go through various classes and we take them out in restaurants, malls and grocery stores. Our puppy raisers - volunteer trainers that temporarily adopt these visual companion dogs in-training - take the puppies anywhere and everywhere a blind person may go."
Once the dogs are 18 months-old and have mastered their obedience training, Occupaws' guide dog instructors begin extensive harness training, which can take between two and four months. When the dogs are ready to be matched with a family, the instructor will visit with each potential student. "It's a very tedious task, but our instructors make sure each dog is a natural match for the owner. For instance, if a child walks quickly, we'll select a dog that has a brisk pace. If a family has cats, we'll select a dog that is familiar and friendly with cats."
But what is the most important characteristic the guide dog trainer at OccuPaws considers? "What it all comes down to is personality. All of our dogs like people, but, for instance, some like to be hugged more than others, and correctly matching a dog's personality to its owner is essential."
The entire process of training a dog from puppyhood to visual companion dog certification can take up to two years and OccuPaws places about seven dogs a year with different families. "It is a long process, and it can be an arduous process, but the rewards in the end make up for all the challenges we face when we train dogs."
"I worked with one young lady who had been losing her eyesight and as a result, retreated to her room and refused to socialize with anyone. We matched her with a dog and one morning her parents went to her room to look for her. They didn't find her there and instead found her outside taking the dog for a walk. This small exercise of independence and socialization brought the family to tears."
If you're interested in learning more about OccuPaws and how you can help their cause, visit their website to apply as a volunteer. According to Barb Schultze, "A blind person cannot receive a dog without the generosity, patience and love of our raisers, trainers and volunteers - and that's something we're always looking for."