For Ann Buschner, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
The 50-year-old was given a guide dog after losing her sight in 2001 due to multiple sclerosis. Buschner said the assistance and love she receives from Sheena, a black Labrador has changed her life. Buschner’s problems with sight began in 1985 due to complications arising from multiple sclerosis.
“I lost my sight in my left eye and was told there was a one-in-a-million chance it would transfer to my right eye,” Buschner said.
Buschner continued to live her life regularly, unconcerned about losing her sight in her right eye.
“I started to then lose my sight in my right eye in 2001,” Buschner said. “I went to a place for the blind in Sarasota. It helped me walk with a cane and they taught me how to mark my clothes, etc,” Buschner said
Buschner said she was then told about getting a dog. But she didn’t want to leave her husband and travel to New York to get matched and be trained with the dog for the extended stay, so she said no. She then learned there was a school in Palmetto. She thought of nothing else but how to get involved and find a dog to help her see.
“They gave me a gift that I can’t replace in any other way,” she said.
Buschner received her guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc., a non-profit organization based in Palmetto that breeds and trains guide dogs and lifelong companions to the visually impaired. Buschner and Sheena now visit local elementary schools to teach children about the benefits of guide dogs.
Buschner said she is impressed by the difference Sheena has made to her life; she is now able to do things her disability made previously impossible. Before, she was afraid to go out by herself. Now she has the ability to shop at the shopping center down the road.
“She is very protective; she is very concerned about where her mom goes (me) — we are very close,” Buschner said.
Sheena has warned her of dangerous situations and protects her from strangers unless otherwise commanded.
“Whenever we walk outside and we come up to a squirrel, Sheena will stop in her tracks and I will know if something is there. We take two steps and she tries to get as close as she can till it takes off running. But the other day, she backed up and it was something dangerous. She would not take me any closer to it,” Buschner said.
Rhonda Bolch, event coordinator for Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc., said the school breeds, raises and trains a variety of dogs to be guide dogs for the blind.
“We use Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, smooth and rough coat collies, Australian shepherds, and Hungarian vizslas,” Bolch said.
Bolch said the school has different levels of training the dogs go through before being given to visually impaired person.
The dogs are bred in the school and, when they are about nine weeks old, they are matched with a volunteer puppy raising family. The family trains the dog and is financially responsible for everything except vet bills. This is a major part in the puppy’s life because the family prepares the dog for the final test — to become a guide dog graduate.
“We couldn’t do anything without the puppy raisers because without them, we wouldn’t be able to have the dog,” Buschner said.
After about a year with the puppy raising family, the dogs go through a four-month professional training course to hone their skills. Some dogs do not graduate due to fear of cars or other fears that would make them unsuited to the role of guide dog. When this happens, the dogs have other alternatives, such as becoming a breeder.
Once the puppy graduates, they are matched with the visually impaired person. Applicants for receiving guide dogs come to the school and live in a dormitory for 28 days, where they receive training on how to handle the dogs. There are a variety of commands to be learned and they have to forge a relationship with the dog. Once the bonding period is over, there is a graduation ceremony so the puppy raising families and other sponsors are able to come to the school to watch the puppy and its new owner walk down the aisle to begin their new life together.
The organization has various programs open for student volunteers at the puppy kennel such as puppy hugging.On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, volunteers can help socialize puppies that are six to nine weeks old.This is one of the most popular (activities). Bolch said. There is also a dog walking program from 9 to 11 a.m. which allows people to exercise the dogs by walking the perimeter of the property. Anyone interested should call ahead to ensure there are puppies since sometimes they may be between litters and have no puppies available. There are other volunteer options, such as helping with the fund raisers. There is also a yearly walk-a-thon when people around the community walk with their dogs or alone around the designated course to show support and raise money for the organization. Volunteers are always appreciated during events like this, Bolch said. For a detailed list of the other various volunteer options, check out the Web site at www.guidedogs.org .