Close your eyes for a few moments and imagine yourself never being able to open them again.
How disoriented did you feel, sitting at home or at work? How challenged were you to do your job or simply complete the mundane tasks necessary for self-sufficiency? Or, maybe you were out in public. Did you feel suddenly vulnerable to becoming lost? To falling, or being struck by a car or being robbed or assaulted by people looking to take advantage of your condition?
People who deal with visual impairments prove remarkably resilient and adaptable, but for many, having the services of a guide dog is critical for meeting challenges in the professional world and broader society, according to Susan Neff, major gifts officer for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Southwest Region.
“It is very hard — especially when you are young — if you are out in the community or going to school or work. First of all, you have to deal with a diagnosis of blindness, and second, people think, ‘oh, you are different.’ But as soon as you have that dog, it is like they open up the room to you. It just makes smiles when you walk into the room.”
Recipients must be able to walk with a cane and be mobile in their communities, because the demand for service dogs is high and costs are significant, according to Neff. The average wait time to receive a dog is five to six months.
“We will provide vet care for them from the day they are born,” she said. “When the dogs are placed with the visually impaired person, we provide pet care for life also, for the life of the dog. That is extremely important, because many people are not able to be so productive in society. But some are very employable and work in many organizations in the United States. Many of our dogs fly. They go on subways. A person can go on an interview and ultimately be able to get a job. Otherwise, without a dog, they might not.
“The thing is, when you are blind you feel pretty isolated. I have talked to many people who have gone blind in the middle of their lives. It is devastating. They go into a depression, do not want to leave the house. They are afraid they are going to fall or that somebody is going to hurt them. But with a dog, it gives them the mobility, it gives them the confidence to go out in the world, to be productive, to be happy.”
The organization, founded in 1942, provides guide dogs for people with visual impairments throughout the United States and Canada, breeding 900 puppies a year at campuses in San Rafael, California, and Boring, Oregon.
The dogs begin training when they reach eight weeks, learning during the next year to relieve themselves on command, refrain from barking, jump ing on furniture and any of the myriad less-than-ideal activities that puppies are prone to engage in.
“Not every dog that we breed and raise becomes a guide dog,” she explained. “It is less than half, because they have to be absolutely perfect. We (produce) up to 400 guide dogs a year.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind relies exclusively on private donations, and corporate support is vital for the provision of services, Neff said.
“Companies like Subaru and Natural Balance have been very supportive. We are constantly building on that.”
Part of the organization’s outreach is to attend corporate events to help raise awareness about its activities, such as at Higher Education User Group’s Alliance 2017 at the MGM Grand, which was held March 1.
“They invited us to come this year because the dogs give everyone a sense of home,” Neff said. “They sort of balance everyone out, because sometimes some of the sessions can be a little stressful.”
GDB has no local corporate sponsors, but the valley branch — Desert Paws, Las Vegas Puppy Raisers — is very active and preparing five puppies for campus training.
“We go to as many events as we can, to promote our program and to get new members,” said Linda Burley, Desert Paws leader, who also works for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “They can just come to learn about our dogs or become sitters. Then others, of course, will want to raise a puppy once they get that sitting experience.”
“(Puppy raisers) get experience in doing something selfless, really doing something for somebody else,” said Rick Wilcox, GDB community field representative. “They’re experiencing some loss and some grief when the dog is recalled to go into training. But then the rewarding part is if the dog goes out as a guide dog, they are invited to present the dog as a working guide dog.”
One such local puppy raiser is Henderson resident Lillyan Higgs, 10, who has helped train a yellow Labrador Retriever, Spark, for more than a year and is about to release him to training recall in California. “If they make it, we get to hand over the leash on a stage in front of a lot of people,” she said. “So we are very proud of that moment.”
Asked if it will be difficult to see Sparks leave for training, Lillyan was matter-of-fact. “It will be a little sad,” she said as she stroked the retriever’s fur. “But that’s OK, because — if he makes it — he will go to somebody who he can really help.”