• Nonprofit provides help
By Carey Restino
Rick Malley’s dog is certainly beautiful; a young German shepherd with poise and focus. But he’s not just another pretty face in the dog world. Malley’s dog is a carefully trained guide dog and when he’s out with Malley, he’s on the job.
Malley, who moved to Homer last winter, works at the Independent Living Center and is legally blind. In the summer, he can make out roads and driveways but in the darkness of winter it’s a different story. Without a guide dog, getting outside on his own would be a very dangerous proposition.
Recently, the shepherd earned his keep.
Malley was walking out into a crosswalk in Homer when a car came whizzing by, failing to stop for Malley and his dog. It wasn’t the first time the guide dog has faced this situation, though. The German shepherd knew just what to do, stopping Malley in his tracks before he walked into harm’s way.
The guide dog’s name isn’t being used in this story because it could serve as a distraction if people called out its name while it was working. Malley counts on his dog to devote his full attention to the job at hand, and any distraction could be deadly.
“When he’s working, it’s a distraction when people talk to him,” Malley said. “He has a different purpose than a pet. He’s a medical device for me.”
Malley’s shepherd is bred and trained by the non-profit organization Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, based in Bloomfield, CT, which not only provides dogs to those in need for free, but also sends a trainer along with the dog to the town in which it will be of service to finish the final training. During that training, Malley said, the dog bonds with its owner, and is tested to make sure it’s ready and focused on its job.
Among those tests was a staged crossing with a car that comes out of a side street to see if it would keep Malley safe. The German shepherd did what he was supposed to do that time, Malley said, and again when he was put to the test for real.
Malley said he chose Fidelco’s guide dogs because of the in-town training.
“Most guide dog schools, you have to go there and stay for a month to learn and train,” Malley said. “Fidelco is the only one that comes to you in your community. It only makes sense that it is trained in your community.”
Malley had to go through a screening process to qualify for the dog, and is one of hundreds who have received Fidelco dogs over the years. All are paid for with private donations.
Fidelco has been breeding dogs since the 1960s, creating a line from a Bavarian stock of German shepherd dogs that are ideal for working dogs’ temperament, stamina, stability and intelligence, according to the foundation website.
The shepherd is trained to pick things up for Malley if he drops them and is very well-trained in basic canine manners, like being non-aggressive.
While Malley said he is confident in his new dog’s abilities, he does worry about interference from strangers — or even worse, from strange dogs. It only takes one attack by an unleashed dog to ruin a guide dog forever, making them fearful and distracted.
When Malley and his dog are at home, however, he gets his downtime.
This is Malley’s second dog from Fidelco — the first had to be retired and put down last winter after six years because of an untreatable medical condition. Malley said that experience was difficult, but he’s optimistic the new dog will help restore his mobility. Without the guide dog, his life is isolated, he said.
Malley said his first guide dog lived with him in Boston. Surprisingly, it’s a city that is in some ways easier to get around in than Homer, which lacks sidewalks, he noted. Malley said the German shepherd is trained to work with roads that don’t have sidewalks, keeping him to the side of the road and out of traffic. Malley said, however, that he is the one who has to know his way around town, not the dog. Working together, the duo is ready to take on Homer.
“He makes me much more independent getting around town,” Malley said. “I’m able to enjoy the outdoors instead of being stuck inside all the time, taking cabs everywhere.”
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