October 22, 2014
When Deb Donnelly and I arrive, the teams in Unit 8 are ready and waiting for us. Puppies are settled on mats with Kongs and Nylabones at the ready.
|A relaxed FLD Eco seems to be listening intently.|
|FLD Hershel, on the other hand, doesn't seem interested. What is it about the floor that is more comfortable than his mat?|
Deb has lots to talk about. She's come from a circular road trip to prisons in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before getting to Baraga and continuing on to Chippewa. She reports that Minnesota's Lino Lakes Correctional Facility, which started raising puppies in July of 2013, had their first puppy issued to a client the day before. Leader Dog "Lino" is now a working guide dog.
With the return of the first Baraga puppies looming in December, the men are interested about the process. Deb explains that Leader Dogs for the Blind takes in 44 puppies each month. Leader Dog veterinarians can only accommodate 11 dogs a week. (This places a demand on the breeding department on the other end.) When the puppies return they are subject to a series of medical exams and x-rays to assure excellent health. Some are pulled for breeding; those that aren't are spayed or neutered. About 14 percent are career-changed for medical issues. The rest go into formal guide work training.
"We always train more dogs than we need," Deb says. Up to 24 blind or visually impaired clients in a given "class" live in the Polk Residence at Leader Dogs for about three and a half weeks. Here they learn to care for and work with their new partner. Extra dogs are necessary so the trainers can make the perfect match with each team.
There are questions about what will happen in December when she comes to bring FLDs Axel, Bear and Copo back to Leader Dog. Deb suggests that the men develop a "good-bye" ceremony for themselves, something that can be consistently recreated for each puppy that leaves.
Saying good-bye to your puppy is hard, no matter whom the puppy raiser happens to be. After returning five of my own puppies I can attest that it never gets easier.
"The dogs do way better than the people do in this," Deb says. "They adapt very well, most of them, very quickly. It's like going to camp for them." A collective sigh and the looks on the men's faces make me believe they are not quite convinced.
|Ricky (left) and Doug (right) sit with their puppy. FLD Bear is one of the puppies slated to return to Leader Dogs for the Blind in December.|
|P reaches over to give a sleepy FLD Gage a pet. This little guy will be staying for a while, but P will be sad to see FLD Bear leave. P was promoted from FLD Bear's team to raise Gage.|
|Black and FLD Copo, who is also slated to return in December.|
Inmate raiser Black will have it especially hard in December. He was promoted from FLD Bear's team to take over as Copo's raiser, so he'll be saying good-bye to two puppies.
Black feels so changed by this program that he recently made a generous donation to Leader Dogs for the Blind. (His job in the Baraga Correctional Facility pays him 74 cents per day.)
Deb feels their pain. FLD Jedi, the 20th puppy she's raised, is due to go back to Leader Dog within a couple of weeks.
|Deb Donnelly speaks to the inmate raisers with FLD Jedi sprawled at her feet. Brown (left) sits with his charge, FLD Hershel.|
"There's somebody out there who needs this dog more than I do," she says. She tells a story about one of the puppies she raised long ago. The puppy "graduated" and was matched with a young man, it was his first Leader dog. Deb got the chance to meet the painfully shy and reserved man. He had a difficult time speaking to her.
Some years later, when he received a second dog, Deb witnessed an amazing transformation. The man stood up in front of everyone. (Back then the graduating teams were introduced as a group to the raisers during "visitation" night at Leader dog. Now the puppy raiser has an individual visit with the new team.) Deb says he would never have done that the first time she met him. He announced that his goal was to meet one million people. He asked that each and every person should come up and shake his hand.
With a catch in her voice, Deb says, "It took me 10 years before I could even tell this story."
|FLD Jedi makes sure he stays close to Deb.|