By Barbara Tetreault
BERLIN — Alyssa Warner is a little more independent these days now that she has a Freedom Guide Dog to help her navigate.
The 24-year old blind woman is wrapping up two weeks of training with Xaverie, a black Labrador Retriever guide dog that will become her constant companion.
The dog will help Warner avoid obstacles and walk without assistance. She has been using a cane or holding on to someone’s arm to navigate.
“She can step out on her own,” said Eric Loori, co-founder of Freedom Guide Dogs. “She won’t have to worry about every step,” he added.
Loori has been in Berlin, training both Warner and Xaverie to work together as a team. The dog learns to adjust to Warner’s gait and commands and she learns the fundamentals of working with a guide dog. Loori said his non-profit organization is different than most others that provide guide dogs in that they provide hometown training. Others require the client to travel to their location for several weeks to do the training.
“We train where they live,” explained Loori.
For Warner that means they have practiced walking with Xaverie on streets she will normally walk. Loori said they have also trained with the dog at Walmart, which can be an unpredictable place with lots of obstacles and people.
The dog and training are provided for free by Freedom Guide Dog, which is headquartered in Cassville, N.Y. The organization depends on grants and fund-raising to cover the cost of raising and training and the cost of travel to train the client.
Warner first heard about Freedom Guide Dogs about a year ago from one of the workers at the Community Service Center. Alyssa helps out at Senior Meals and at the Community Book Store through the Community Service Center.
Her mother Danielle Warner helped Alyssa fill out an application. Danielle Warner said she had previously looked into getting a guide dog for her daughter but the cost was prohibitive. Loori drove here this spring and interviewed Alyssa. He did an assessment and created a profile of what type of dog Alyssa would need.
Loori said it normally takes six months to a year to find the right dog for a client. But in this case he learned of a dog with another trainer that he thought might be suitable. He worked the dog out for a week or two to get to know for sure and called the Warners in July.
“I was so pumped,” said Alyssa, when she heard the news.
Loori said his guide dogs go through extensive training and are 2 years old before they are matched with a blind person. The dogs are raised by volunteers, called “puppy raisers,” for the first year and a half. Then they receive four to five months of formal training for guide work.
The final step is two to three weeks of intense one-on-one training with the client. Loori said Alyssa was a quick study because she had some dog knowledge and is good at handling a leash. Before he arrived, Loori sent Alyssa two audio CDs about footwork and positioning that she studied.
A special harness is used for guide dogs, and when the harness is on, the dog is on duty and taught not to respond to distractions. People are asked not to touch the dog, and she is never fed people food. When the harness is off, Loori said she becomes a normal dog and can play and run around.
Xaverie will sleep in Alyssa’s bedroom and she will be responsible for grooming and feeding her. Loori said he will do a follow–up visit and then get annual health reports. The working life of a guide dog is eight to 10 years.
Danielle said she is grateful for Freedom Guide Dogs and will be making a donation to help the next person in need. She is also urging others to consider making a donation.
Eric Loori and his wife Sharon, both experienced dog trainers, started Freedom Guide Dogs back in 1992. The non-profit has more than 120 clients throughout the Northeast.
For more information about Freedom Guide Dogs, go to freedomguidedogs.org.