Guide Dog Bliss

 In News & Events

Kennebec Journal – Morning Sentinel – 10/11/2007

By JOEL ELLIOTT Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Many of 11-year-old Allison Fischang’s experiences with her black Labrador, Fiera, resemble those of any other young dog owner — she enjoys playing with the dog and works hard to train her. But she knows that, someday soon, she must give up the dog, because Fiera is no ordinary puppy.

She is a service dog in training, and although Allison may have become as attached to her as any 11-year-old might, she wants to do her part to prepare the dog for a lifetime of enabling a blind or otherwise visually-impaired person to live a more independent life.

“It will be tough,” Allison said, absently petting Fiera from time to time as the dog circled the kitchen table. “But the good thing about it is, she’ll be going to a blind person.”

Sixteen-month-old Fiera is the first puppy Allison, with the help of her mother, Andrea, has helped raise as part of a program that pairs guide dogs with limited or no vision.

The organization, Guiding Eyes For the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., uses nearly 500 puppy raisers in about a dozen states along the Eastern Seaboard to prepare dogs for guide dog training. Guide dogs from the organization go to homes coast to coast.

Allison’s dedication to training the dog earned her the Gold Presidential Volunteer Service Award and a letter from President Bush earlier in the summer.

The award, according to a government statement, is intended to “recognize the valuable contributions volunteers are making in our nation,” and went out to youths who had volunteered 100 or more hours in the past year.

Carol Rogers, an assistant area coordinator for the Guiding Eyes organization, said she nominated Allison for the award because of “her commitment to the program, her love of dogs. She always tries to work really hard to do the right thing.”

“She’s a truly positive kid; she’s fun to be with; she’s a very busy young lady,” Rogers said, listing several sports and other activities in which Allison participates. “So for her to be taking the time to train dogs with us is pretty special.”

Two other Maine girls, both in their teens, also received the award this year: April Hall of Ellsworth and April Davis of Deer Isle. More than 30 youths won the award through volunteer work with Guiding Eyes.

Guiding Eyes needs more volunteers to train puppies, according to Linda Damato, a regional marketing manager for the organization.

About 90 people are waiting for a guide dog from Guiding Eyes, and the average wait time is about six months, Damato said.

The length of the list fluctuates, depending the number of people needing dogs and the number of puppy raisers.

Demand is increasing as the population ages and the incidence of diabetes rises, Damato said.

Guiding Eyes, a nonprofit organization that depends on donations to fund its $16.5 million budget, breeds its own puppies and pays for all medical bills associated with its dogs.

Puppy raisers pay for food while the dog is in their care. Guide dogs in their lifetimes will each cost the organization about $45,000, but are provided at no cost to the blind or visually-impaired, Damato said.

Allison and her mother intend to continue working with Guiding Eyes if Fiera does successfully take the somewhat bittersweet next step in the training process.

“I hope she does” pass the test and go on to harness training, Allison said. “There’s a whole ceremony like a graduation, and you get to see them placed with a blind person.”