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God Squad: Helping guide dogs to help the blind

Some years ago my wife, Betty, told me that we had not produced enough children. When I came to from fainting, she told me that she would be happy if our new child was a dog. But a working dog — a guide dog for the blind. I wanted to run out and get a guide dog immediately before she changed her mind.

What we then discovered was that guide dogs cannot be trained until they have outgrown their puppy-ness. Before that, the puppies are placed in loving, usually dog-less families until they are about a year and a half old. Then the dogs are returned to the guide dog trainers by their “puppy walker” families to begin their formal training as guide dogs, first alone, and then in partnership with their new sight-impaired human handlers.

The amazing kindness of the guide-dog training community is immense and inspiring. Sight-impaired recipients of guide dogs are charged nothing, the foundations that train them and the veterinarians who care for them are paid nothing and the entire national guide dog enterprise receives no federal subsidies and survives only by donations from those who admire their pure goodness and life-altering work.

We have served as puppy walkers for several guide dogs in our lives. The most common question asked of us by people who are contemplating becoming puppy walker volunteers is obviously, “How can you bring yourselves to give up the puppy after the year?” Our answer was that we knew it was for a good cause, and that we tried to time our delivery of our puppy with a pickup of a new puppy. We also explained that some of the puppies flunk out of guide dog school and if that happens (and if they are not used as service dogs) the little flunkies are offered back to you permanently as family pets. Actually our first guide dog puppy, a yellow lab named Topper, flunked out of guide dog school because he was a cat chaser, which is a serious problem if some human is hanging on. When I came to retrieve Topper, I yelled at them, “What kind of cats do you have around here anyway?” The return of Topper helped us to endure the sadness of surrendering our future dogs.

One of our dogs, a black Lab named Lucky, was placed with a handler whose name was the same as a distinguished medieval rabbi. It turned out, as I discovered by talking with him on the day of Lucky’s graduation from guide dog school, that he was indeed a direct descendant of that famous rabbi who had written the first Code of Jewish law. I said to him, “Your ancestor wrote a book that led me into a fuller Judaism. I have trained a dog that will lead you into a fuller life. Your ancestor taught that, ‘A good deed produces a good deed.’ I had no idea it would take over 800 years for that teaching to come true for us.” We cried together.

When my dad, Sol Gellman, died in 2007 we named a guide dog in his memory. We named him “Solly,” and when I retired from my synagogue three years ago my wonderful congregants took up a collection and named a guide dog puppy in my honor. They named it “Gellman.” I would have preferred “Spot” but they were insistent. Just recently I received the following letter:

Dear Rabbi Gellman,

Congratulations! Gellman has been matched with a guide dog recipient and will be trained in the recipient’s hometown. We are anticipating that the training will be a success. In the unlikely event that a match does not work out, due to the student, the dog or any unforeseen circumstances, Gellman would then return to our care and await placement with another student. Once training is complete, we will send you a graduation letter and certificate of Gellman with his new handler. Thank you for continuing to support our programs.

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc.

371 E. Jericho Tpke.

Smithtown, NY 11787

Toll-free 800-548-4337 x1137

On May 17 I will celebrate my 70th birthday. In the past, many grateful readers have sent me cars, boats, planes and barrels of cash, but this year, if you are so moved, please consider making a donation to the Guide Dog Foundation or to any other guide dog foundation near you. Both Gellmans: Gellman the rabbi and Gellman the dog, will thank you and you will bring a blessing. The Bible teaches, “Do not . . . put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). With your help we can remove some stumbling blocks.

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