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Smithtown streets are training ground for guide dogs
After two weeks of training at The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, students take to Main Street, familiarizing their guide dogs with a real world setting.
Anne Mercer, an instructor at the national foundation, said the community welcomes students and foundation instructors to use their hometown for training.
“We teach the dogs to safely cross the street and notice obstacles like uneven sidewalks and stairs,” said Mercer, 35, director of training at the foundation. “It’s a great area for this.”
Since 1946, the foundation has provided guide dogs at no cost to visually impaired individuals or veterans around the country.
Mercer, of Smithtown, said the majority of the training is done at the Smithtown location, and when the guide dogs are ready, they’re paired with owners who seek enhanced mobility and independence.
“It gives them more security and another set of eyes,” said Mercer, who frequently travels out of state to assist owners and trainers. “It’s a much more efficient way of getting around.”
Linda Jones, 63, of Northport, was declared legally blind at age 11 after slowly losing her vision because of a hereditary degenerative eye disease.
She has used a cane to get around for most of her life, but it wasn’t always enough. She said strangers would bump into her cane throwing her off balance, and she would unintentionally knock over displays at stores.
Jones reached out to foundation in 1997, which provided her with her first trained guide dog to act as her eyes.
“I would make excuses to stay home because using a cane was so demeaning,” said Jones, 63. “Having a guide dog changed everything. I finally felt what it was like to walk normally and without fear.”
The foundation first provided her with a 2-year-old yellow Labrador named Kappy.
Thankful for the years she had with Kappy, who died at age 12 a year ago, Jones began volunteering at the foundation in 2008 visiting Long Island schools to tell children how having a guide dog has changed her life for the better.
“Kappy saved my life,” said Jones, with her second guide dog, Seymour, nuzzling his nose between her leg and the chair. “And now Seymour is my other miracle. He saves me every day. A cane would never do what he does. He takes care of me.”
To this day, the flat-coated retriever helps Jones live an independent life without fear of leaving her home and has saved her on more than one occasion.
“I can walk normal like everyone else and I can even fly by myself now,” she said. “It gave me back my self esteem, dignity and independence. He makes me whole.”
Wells Jones, chief executive of the Guide Dog Foundation, said the next group of guide dogs will start training in April. After students complete two weeks of on-site training with their assigned dogs, they’ll take a van to Town Hall and train on the streets of Smithtown.
“Smithtown is a wonderful location for us,” Wells Jones said. “We have tremendous support from the community and many of our volunteers are from Smithtown. We’re happy to continue to grow here.”