Program gears special dogs to be guide canines

Veterinarian Brad McClung has built his life and business around animals, and is reaching out through Pilot Dogs Inc. to those whose lives depend on their service dogs.

McClung, owner of McClung’s Animal Hospital of Tiffin, has been practicing veterinary medicine since 1981 and recently donated a lab puppy to Pilot Dogs to be trained as a “leader dog for the visually impaired.”

McClung said his journey to Pilot Dogs began when his labrador retriever, MC’s Dyna Might, exhibited signs of being exceptionally smart, athletic and gifted. Dyna, as she is nicknamed, holds numerous competitive titles, McClung said, including hunting retriever champion, master hunter and upland hunter. Dyna won her first title at age 2, he said, and soon will compete for grand champion. She is trained by handler Trent Cleland, who has been training dogs for 20 years.

McClung said after Dyna exhibited superior trainability and proved she had the makings of a champion, the idea sparked that she could be bred to produce exceptional puppies. After Dyna was checked for genetic disorders and conformational traits, he said, he and his wife, Cathy, made the decision to breed her.

In April, McClung said 10 perfect puppies were born to Dyna and, while nine of them went to the homes of other labrador enthusiasts, he kept one to become their “donation and gift” to Pilot Dogs.

Based in Columbus, Pilot Dogs is a non-profit organization that was chartered in 1950 to train service dogs to fulfill its mission statement, “To provide the finest of guide dogs to the qualified sightless.”

According to the organization’s website, about 150 people are served through Pilot Dogs every year. Dogs are rigorously trained and paired with visually impaired people to create teams prepared to meet the challenges encountered in the world. Breeds accepted for training at Pilot Dogs include golden retrievers, doberman pinschers, labrador retrievers, poodles, boxers and vizslas.

McClung said puppies in the Pilot Dog program do not immediately begin training at the Columbus facility. For the early part of each puppy’s life, until he or she is between 12 and 24 months old, the dog is placed with a trainer who is responsible for general upbringing and early training.

McClung chose to place his puppy with trainer Sandy Bland, a longtime client at McClung’s Animal Hospital who exhibits kindness and enthusiasm for the pets in her care.

He said Bland named the puppy Bradley, after him, and will oversee Bradley’s care and development until he is ready to begin training at Pilot Dogs.

Bland said Bradley is the seventh guide dog she has trained, and is the first male. So far, she said, Bradley “is the most challenging I’ve ever had.”

At 5 months old, she said, he remains ornery, and his basic training will truly begin when he begins to settle down.

Bland said training a guide dog from puppyhood is a process of basic training and exposure to new experiences.

She said her responsibilities include socializing, housebreaking and teaching manners and acceptable behavior as he or she adapts to home life.

During this phase, she said, her dogs attend Dakota Training, a local canine training school that teaches basic behavior and commands.

Following basic training, Bland said she begins socializing a puppy in the community, exposing the dog to the sights, sounds, smells and experiences that will be encountered while working as a guide dog.

In the Tiffin community, she said, guide dogs have “become more of a familiar thing over the years.”

According to state law, she said, businesses are required to allow guide dogs, even those in training, on the premises, and Bland said most Tiffin locations are welcoming to her and the dogs in her care.

When a business or individual encounters a guide dog during training or while it is working, she said, certain rules and procedures need to be followed. Individuals must realize, she said, when a guide dog is working, it is not to be petted and interacted with as a pet. The responsibilities of a lead dog require full and uninterrupted attention to ensure the safety of the person being led by the dog.

Most guide dogs, she said, wear a vest to designate them as lead dogs, and that vest not only serves as identification to the public, but also is “like a uniform” to the dog.

When the vest is worn, Bland said, a guide dog knows it’s time to work, and is able to remain steadfastly focused.

Bland said when a guide dog is at home and the vest is off, he or she can be played with and treated like any other pet dog.

“They know the difference,” she said.

In addition, Bland said it is imperative for guide dogs in training to be exposed to a variety of experiences. She said parades, movies, sporting events, stores and farms are a few of the locations to which she exposes her dogs, because the sights, sounds and smells can be applicable for a lead dog in the world.

Bradley, she said, recently began training at Dakota Training, and, once those classes are complete, she will begin to take him out in the community. She said all of her dogs have completed her course of training by the time they are about 1 year old.

After a dog completes training at Pilot Dogs – an intense 5-month program – the dog is paired with a visually impaired client and the team begins to work together.