Grayslake man raises puppies to help sight-impaired people have more freedom
Lucy and her pups are working to change the world for the visually impaired, one person at a time.
But before they can do that, they need to learn basic commands like sit and stay, followed by trickier jobs like riding the train.
Their reward? Lots of belly rubs.
Lucy and her youngest, Koko, are in the care of Jerry Ming of Grayslake, who is raising them to be Leader Dogs for the Blind.
Ming, who has been raising Leader Dogs for five years, got involved with the program through the Lions Club, of which he has been a member for 40 years.
Leader Dogs for the Blind is a worldwide charity funded by Lions Club International. Local Lions Clubs across the suburbs -- and the world -- have given back to this program through such events as pancake breakfasts or selling raffle tickets.
The program started in 1939 in Rochester Hills, Michigan. According to its website, leaderdog.org, the organization was founded by members of the Uptown Lions Club of Detroit. Their motivation was a fellow Lion who had lost his sight and wanted a guide dog. A small farm in Rochester Hills was purchased for $1. Over the years, additional land was acquired to create what is now a 14-acre campus.
The first class of Leader Dogs graduated in October 1939 at the cost of $600 per client/dog team. Clients were charged $150, a practice that ended in 1958. Today, all services are free.
According to Ming, LD controls 99% of its own breeding, along with a few purebred puppies donated by select breeders.
"So, in the case of my current dogs, LD can tell me their genealogy going back 81 years," Ming said.
The group selects certain dogs based on their temperament, health and the likelihood of good future puppies to become Leader Dog Moms.
That is the case with Ming's Lucy, a purebred black Lab. So far, Lucy has had three litters, a total of 17 puppies. Ming says that after her fourth litter, which should be in mid-February, Lucy will officially become his for life and act as a Leader Dog ambassador.
Right now, Lucy and her pup Koko, 9 months, legally belong to Leader Dogs for the Blind. Ming is known as a puppy raiser.
"People such as myself raise the puppies from approximately 7 weeks until 12-13 months, where we teach them basic commands, housebreak them, and more fundamental steps before they go back to LD for further intense training with professional trainers," said Ming.
"We call that LD College, where they get evaluated for their health and their abilities. They then go into college for 3-5 months and, if all goes well, they get matched with a client and they go out into the world and do great things."
Ming says he has dogs across the country, and even one -- Rosie -- in Barcelona, Spain. Rosie, Ming's third dog, went to a woman who could only see shadows.
"I thought, this dog is going to change this woman's life. Now she has the freedom to go out in public. This is the greatest reward, that this dog changed the world for someone," Ming said.
While Ming knew his dogs would serve a greater purpose, he said it wasn't easy giving up that first puppy.
"We have an unbelievably amazing bond with these dogs. We are with them 24/7. I was a total mess when I turned in my first dog, Bella."
Ming said puppy raisers receive progress reports on how the dogs are doing with the pro trainers, who prepare the canines for their new jobs.
According to Rachelle Kniffen, director of communications and marketing for Leader Dogs, it takes about four months to train a puppy in four key phases.
Phase one is foundation training, where they learn how to live in different environments and wear a harness.
Phase two is basic training, such as how to stop at corners or walk in a straight line crossing the street without getting distracted.
Phase three is intermediate training, where they enter more complicated, busier environments.
Phase four is advanced training, which Kniffen called Intelligent Disobedience. From the beginning the dog has been taught to obey commands, but they also must learn to disobey their owners in order to protect them from dangerous situations.
Once the dogs are ready, clients, sight-impaired people, travel to Michigan to be paired with a dog. According to Ming finding the right match is imperative.
"They need to find the right size dog. Bigger people need a bigger dog for stability. They also try to match personalities. Do they need a dog with more energy, or one that likes to just hang out. They want the dog to be successful for you," he said.
Once the right pup and client are partnered, it is the client's turn to be trained. Kniffen said they spend three weeks learning how to work together.
Ming says that the organization pays for everything for the client -- airfare to and from the facility, food, lodging in the dormlike building and follow-up training.
Most importantly, the dog is free.
Kniffen said that an average of 200 dogs go out to clients each year. By the time all of the training -- for both humans and dogs -- is done, that is a $45,000 value.
"We cannot stress enough the word free," Kniffen said. "It's hard for people to accept, but we have very loyal donors, from Lions Clubs, corporations and individual donors."
Volunteers help make this possible. Kniffen says there are about 300 puppy raisers across the country. Once applicants are accepted to raise puppies, they are assigned a puppy group -- people in their area who raise puppies -- as well as a puppy counselor, who offers local support and training sessions.
"There is a ton of support," Kniffen said.
She says the biggest concern people have is ruining the dog, but it is up to the dog if it wants to work.
Ming agrees. "We can train the dog, but the dog has to make the decision to do the work."
Ming says that trainers can tell within the first 30 days if puppies will be able to make it as a Leader Dog. If they can't, it is time for a career change.
Kniffen says the organization reaches out to other service dog groups to see if the dog may fit their needs. If not, the puppy raiser gets the first chance to take the dog back. Otherwise, it is adopted out to the general public for a donation fee.
A career change could also occur if the client's needs change, of if the client can no longer take care of the dog, In that case, Leader Dogs takes the dog back and finds it a new home.
"Every retired dog is cared for. We love the dogs as much as the clients do," Kniffen said.
The normal service life for a Leader Dog is 9 years. Clients can choose to keep the dog along with their new service dog, but if they can't handle two dogs, retirees are adopted out.
"There are plenty of people who would want a well-trained dog. These dogs are exceptional," Ming said.
Ming says that while raising the dogs is a lot of work, it is also pure enjoyment.
"Who doesn't love a puppy," he said.
And the cost to puppy raisers is minimal. Leader Dogs pays most of the costs. Ming says because he lives so far from the Leader Dog facility, he usually pays for his own vet visits and food, but he considers that his donation back to the group.
"The cost is minimal over what you are accomplishing," he said.
And for Ming, that isn't just training a dog to change a person's life. It also means training the public. He takes Koko with him wherever he goes, not only to train her for all circumstances, but to educate people who meet her.
"Once a service dog puts on its harness or jacket, it knows it is serious time," Ming said. "When people see a service dog, they should always ask before approaching the dog, because it is not a pet, it is working."
He also wants people to know that when they take part in a Lions Club program or activity, this is where their money goes.
"Leader dogs are the total eyes to the world. These dogs are the clients' world lifeline," Ming said. "This is a life-changing program."
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Leader Dogs for the Blind
Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, also offers these programs for sight-impaired people:
• Orientation and Mobility Training. This program teaches people how to get around using a white cane. The program is held year-round.
• Swimmer Experience Camp for ages 16-17, which teaches teens independence. Program is offered at the end of June.
To learn more about these programs, or to find out how to volunteer or make a donation to the Leader Dog program, visit leaderdog.org.