Spotlight on Tom Owen and Cisco
Tom Owen was one of the first members I met from the joint Lions Club Dinner in the Dark planning committee. Extending his hand right away, he projected warmth and friendship. With my vision limitations, it took me awhile to remember who was who but Tom stood out because not only did he buy my book early on, he commented on my dog scenes.
That should have tipped me off to what a big dog lover he was. But it wasn’t until this past November, I learned he was a puppy trainer for Leader dogs. We decided to team up together to speak to two of my great niece’s classes about blindness, cane use and leader dogs. I needed more time to obtain my school clearances so we settled on an interview for now.
1. Can you tell my readers about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, graduated from Gannon University with a degree in Industrial Management. I was a middle manager working for Verizon and did everything but sales and marketing. I had always been raised with dogs my whole life–mostly beagles. My dad was an avid rabbit hunter. I’m an outdoor person and always dreamed of having a small farm. Eighteen years ago I bought the property where I now live. With thirty-three acres, it’s a good place to train a dog.
2. Can you explain what a leader dog is and how you became interested in them?
Sure. There are about thirteen different agencies across the United States that train dogs to help the blind. These organizations have different names. I like Leader Dogs because they … do exactly that–safely lead the blind. How did I get interested? I had been involved in the Lions Club for many years and was at the state level. I was given a choice of working with two programs: a blind camp or a dog training program. The second won out because I recalled a talk I’d heard from leader that impacted me some years earlier. I applied for a pup and twenty-four hours later, I received my first dog.
3. Would you mind giving an overview of the Leader Dog organization and its history?
Three men from the Detroit Lions Club started it in 1939.
Helen Keller had addressed the Lions Club and charged them to become ‘a knight for the blind.’ Up until that point, only the wealthy blind received dogs. Through the Leader Dog program, any blind person could receive a dog, regardless of their financial status.
Leader Dogs currently provide approximately 400 dogs around the world.
4. When you begin training a dog, what are the first things you do?
The puppy arrives at about five weeks already crate-trained. The first thing is housebreaking it. That takes about a week of keeping it confined to an easy-to-clean floor surface and taking it out every hour. Then I begin with simple commands like sit, stand, heel, etc.
5. What’s a typical day like?
The dog goes with me wherever I go. It needs to be well-socialized. However, I have to remind people not to pet the dog when it has it’s vest on because it’s being trained and will become distracted. This will later create a danger to its blind owner. When the vest is on, it has to be alert to everything. It needs to learn this from an early age.
6. How long do you keep the dog?
Puppy training takes ten months. After that, the puppy is returned to the organization for formal training and stringent health checks. I received Cisco when he was seven months old. His trainer was diagnosed with cancer so I look over his training. It’s a bit traumatizing for a dog to readjust to a new trainer in the middle of its training but sometimes it can’t be helped. On Monday, he leaves for the rest of his training in Michigan.
7. What’s the most difficult aspect? The most rewarding?
The most difficult? Getting the dog to pay attention on command. Some people use a clicker. I don’t . But of course, I give positive reinforcement and the puppy receives lots of rewards when it accomplishes what it’s supposed to do.
The most rewarding? Hands down, the most rewarding aspect is knowing I am helping someone who is blind. When the dog and the blind owner is matched up, knowing I played a key role in making a life-changing future possible, it’s amazing! There is nothing like hearing it from a blind person.
People ask me, ‘Isn’t it hard to give up the dog after being so close to it for months?’ It isn’t when I keep in mind, the ultimate goal and what we are accomplishing.
Do you know the cost of raising a leader dog puppy from start to finish? It’s $40,000.00. As I told you, all expenses are paid for the person receiving the dog.
8. How does the dog learn to disregard a command from his blind owner and make a decision regarding the safety of his or blind master?
That is done through positive reinforcement and repetition in the formal phase of its training. The dog is trained to detect the dangers of oncoming vehicles and obstacles. It’s trained to knock people out of the way of oncoming vehicles. I knew a lady whose dog saved her life twice. Once a rattlesnake was within striking distance and the dog stepped in. The second time, the woman stepped out and would have fallen five floors but the dog didn’t let her pass. She finally figured out why. Amazing creatures!
9. How has training a leader dog changed your perspective on life?
It makes me really appreciate what I can do for another person. It gives me a sense of real objectives and what my contributions are to this world. I’m a better, more patient person.
Dogs are extremely interesting creatures and often can sense things that we mortals cannot.
10. With that said, do you have a favorite leader dog story?
I have a pal–Caroll Jackson, a former director of a state blind school in Illinois. He is a an amazing man who lost all his sight but gets around well with a guide dog. He’s also a speaker. I recall a story of how he went to the airport restroom, the handicapped stall, which is larger and better able to accommodate a guide dog. A few minutes after he entered, he smelled marijuana. Someone had come into the rest room and was smoking it. Well, Carol used his authoritative voice and instructed the smoker to remain in the stall, put his hands behind his back and to stay put. The airport security was on their way to arrest him. The marijuana smoker did as he was told. Caroll left the rest room with his dog and notified security. The head of security said, “We’ll dispatch two officers immediately.” He thanked Caroll and remarked, “I didn’t know we had any plain clothes security.” Caroll replied, “You don’t. I’m just a regular guy traveler and was between flights.” The smoker was subsequently arrested. The pot smoker had seen the police dog and believed Caroll’s bluff.
How do you feel about dogs? Have you ever heard of the Leader Dog organization? Have you heard of other organizations who provide dogs for the blind?
You have just read “Spotlight on Tom Owen and Cisco.” by Tom Owen and Amy L. Bovaird. Copyright December 19, 2015. Please take a moment and leave a comment.