Pilot Dogs Bring Independence to Thousands of Visually Impaired

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Ray Byers with a retired Pilot Dog(Photo: Photo: Sam Hendren)
Ray Byers with a retired Pilot Dog(Photo: Photo: Sam Hendren)

Since 1950, Pilot Dogs in Columbus has supplied more than 5-thousand guide dogs to the visually impaired.

Whick Turner from San Antonio began losing his eyesight 11 years ago. Turner, who’s 43, recently spent a month at Pilot Dogs, training with a yellow lab named Cooper. Turner holds onto Cooper with a handle attached to a harness. The two are taking one last walk along Town Street before they head home to Texas.

Q:What is Cooper telling you?

“Cooper basically stops,’ Turner says. “He’s really not telling me anything. He’s really good on curbs, just letting me know how to step. He knows his right from his left and he will get me around obstacles if there’s anything in front of me he’ll stop.”

Pilot Dogs has been training guide dogs since 1950. Over the years they’ve trained and placed about 5,000 dogs with clients. The headquarters building houses dormitory and dining facilities. Next door, on Town Street at 315 is a large kennel. Training director Ray Byers.

“We can house 48 dogs in here,” Byers says. “You’re going to see all different breeds. We’ve got Labs and Boxers and Dobermans.”

Also German Shepherds and Standard Poodles. Byers says young puppies are raised in volunteer homes. Then they undergo six months of training on the streets of Columbus. Byers says 10 trainers gradually introduce the dogs to the challenges of urban living.

“They’re going to start em out here on the west side of Columbus which is all small business and residential,” Byers says. “As the dog progresses and is ready to go they’ll start moving them closer and closer to the downtown area. And eventually when they get downtown we’re going to be doing the bus work, we’re going to be going in and out of stores, the office buildings, the elevators, the escalators, the revolving doors. Anything a blind person can run into down that we can duplicate down there we’re going to put the dog into.”

Students come to Pilot Dogs from around the U.S. and from other countries. The cost for the dog, 4 weeks of training, room and board, and transportation to and from Columbus amounts to about $8,000 a piece. All of it is provided to the student free of charge.

The organization’s annual budget is about $1.7 million. The money is donated by Lion’s Clubs and other civic organizations and from private individuals.

“Go forward.”

“One of the unique things that I have done was going into the Harley Davidson shop,” says Whick Turner.

“Forward.”

“And the dog took me right in between motorcycles, we bumped into nothing in the aisles, and that’s something I haven’t done in the last eight years,” Turner says. “Normally you go into a shop and bump into someone or you knock over a shelf. The dog gets you around all of those obstacles which was really something amazing for me.”

“Good boy.”

“Forward. Find the curb.”

“Good boy.”

“Forward.”

Pilot Dogs holds about 13 classes a year with 10 to 14 students a piece. Many of the students have never worked with a guide dog before and according to Byers it takes some getting used to.

“It’s totally different when you’re got a two-foot animal that you’re holding onto versus someone who is six feet and you’re holding on to their elbow and almost the same height as you are,” Byers says.

But to Whick Turner and thousands of other pilot dog students the freedom they gain is immeasurable.

“When you want to go for a walk, you just grab your harness and go. You don’t have to wait on anybody to pick you up, it’s a real good feeling to have back. You have your independence back and it just feels like you’re walking your dog.”

“Great feeling.”

“Go right.”

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