Guide dogs graduate to a life of service

While graduation ceremonies for two-legged students may be over, two four-legged students moved on in Wilton last week. Coinciding with a visit from Congressman Jim Himes, two German shepherd dogs have completed their Fidelco training and visited Wilton one last time before beginning their lives as service dogs for the blind.

Haddie and Kato were the first puppies from Fidelco’s office in Wilton who went to live with puppy raisers before beginning their training. They returned July 6 to be reunited briefly with their first families — Haddie with Hazel and David Katz of Stamford and Kato with Doug Fuchs of Newtown, who raised him with his wife Diane. Both dogs had the same trainer, Chris Eastwood.

Himes made his first visit to the Fidelco office that opened on Cannon Road in June 2016. The congressman has been involved with the organization through his sponsorship of H.R 2625, which establishes and funds a grant program to encourage the use of assistance dogs by members of the military and veterans. A predecessor bill (H.R. 2847) provided funding for fiscal years 2015-17. This bill would fund fiscal years 2018-20.

Fidelco received $680,000 from the first grant program, Eliot D. Russman, president and CEO of Fidelco, told The Bulletin. Veterans are among the men and women Fidelco places its dogs with. The majority of Fidelco’s dogs — 55% — serve the visually impaired with one-third going into law enforcement and the remainder becoming pets.

Since 1981, Fidelco has placed 1,500 dogs in 41 states and six Canadian provinces. Of those in law enforcement, more than 300 have been placed with the Connecticut state police over the years.

Although Fidelco is 50 years old, it is only since 1981 that it has trained and placed its dogs. Previously, it bred dogs for other service organizations or law enforcement.

“In 1981, Fidelco decided to fulfill its promise to train dogs,” Russman said. The organization breeds and trains only German shepherds, believing it is the best for intelligence, temperament, stamina, and the desire to work.

Bred as herding dogs, “herding and guide work are not dissimilar,” Russman said, adding that a healthy German shepherd can work for up to 10 years. That’s important because it means a dog and its owner can work together as long as possible before having to start over with a new dog.

“Being blind can be socially isolating,” Russman said, repeating one client’s comment that “no one asked him the name of his cane. With a dog, people want to engage.”

Fidelco maintains a campus in Bloomfield where it has its kennel, puppy house and veterinary clinic. The Wilton office is focused on business outreach and community engagement throughout Fairfield County. Puppy raisers also bring their dogs here for training every Saturday morning.

The Wilton facility, known as the Norma F. Pfriem Training Center, was provided by the Norma F. Pfriem Foundation. Pfriem, a Fairfield County resident, was an ardent supporter of Fidelco guide dogs.

“Wilton’s been great to us,” Russman said. Puppies are brought here several times a year to be paired with puppy raisers. “We always need puppy raisers, sitters, and volunteers,” he said.

Puppy raisers

While it is a very rewarding experience, raising a puppy and then giving it back for training is very emotional for humans and dogs, as evidenced by the excitement Haddie exhibited for her raisers, the Katzes. It was the first time they had seen each other in more than six months.

Haddie was the Katzes’ fourth Fidelco puppy. She explained that for them, as empty nesters, it was a way to have a dog in their lives without the long-term responsibility and help people as well.

Yankee is their latest charge, whom they’ve had for nine months and will have for about six more. Hazel said they try to go on an outing every day. She’s learned to “read” Yankee “so it’s a positive experience every time. You don’t want them overwhelmed.”

“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job of passion,” she said.

Doug Fuchs visited Kato at Fidelco with his current dog, Zeus. “This is a wonderful opportunity to give back,” he said. “You learn a lot about dogs and an awful lot about yourself. You give a piece of your heart to these guys who do the work, and they take a piece of your heart with them. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to be part of the process to give someone independence.”

Part of each dog’s training is to ascertain where it will do its best work — in a city, the suburbs or out in the country. Fidelco trainers complete a dog’s training in its new home and the organization provides a 24/7 client services hotline. Each team is visited every year.

It takes two years from birth to placement, and each dog receives 15,000 hours of training, “more than our kids get in school,” Russman said. It costs $45,000 to create a guide dog, but each is given to a client at no charge.

“We’ve never had a human fatality with a decision a dog has made,” Russman said.

When it is time for a dog to be retired, it can stay with its owner or be adopted by one of a long list of potential forever families. “No dog ever winds up in a shelter,” he said.