November 1, 2014

Medina
Rain
39°F

Guide dogs lend a helping paw

When Darren and Tammy Sikon volunteered about eight years ago to raise a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, it was the beginning of a rewarding relationship with the nonprofit organization.

Four of the dogs they helped raise have been placed with visually disabled people, and a fifth dog, Nelson, just went to formal training at the end of last month.

“When you meet people whose lives are made easier, who have benefited from this, it makes it worth everything,” Darren said.

Darren Sikon and 12-week-old Labrador retriever Carolyn take a break during a training session in Berea earlier this month. (LOREN GENSON / GAZETTE)

Darren Sikon and 12-week-old Labrador retriever Carolyn take a break during a training session in Berea earlier this month. (LOREN GENSON / GAZETTE)

In 2006, he and his wife began training their first dog for Guiding Eyes and they’re hoping to get other families in the area involved as puppy raisers.

To raise a puppy for the organization requires pre-training classes. Training continues until the dogs are about 18 months old.

Then they head to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s main facility in New York.

“We’re all volunteers,” Darren said. “You work on training at home until about eight or nine months. Then they can be certified.”

At that age, dogs can get a certification from the state of Ohio as “guide dogs in training.” They wear a special vest and are allowed in any place the public is allowed.

Darren said he’s taken his dogs on buses, subways, airplanes, everywhere, to get used to new environments and people.

Not all volunteers have to take on a dog full time. The organization allows co-raisers; for example, one family might raise a dog Monday through Thursday evening and drop the dog off with a different family until Monday morning.

The organization also is looking for baby sitters who take the training course and volunteer to watch a dog while a raiser family is on vacation.

During their time as puppy raisers, volunteers teach basic skills to prepare the dogs for what they’ll learn in training from the experts in New York.

After training in New York, the dogs will be tested to see where they’ll be placed. Only about half the dogs are suited to serve as guide dogs for the blind. Those who don’t make the cut still have other ways to serve.

Some will serve with Heeling Autism, part of the Guiding Eyes program that places therapy dogs with children who have autism.

Other dogs may work in law enforcement, helping police officers by sniffing out illegal drugs.

Sometimes the well-trained dogs that are not suited for full-time work are put up for adoption. Proceeds from the adoption goes back to benefit Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Darren said he works hard to fundraise for the organization because it doesn’t charge people who receive the dogs any money for the training and placement.

“It’s all free, and that’s what I think is really great,” Darren said. “It doesn’t cost them a thing to come out and get a dog and train with them, and it changes their life.”

Darren said he’s stayed in contact with all the people who have dogs that he and Tammy helped to raise. He said it’s great to keep up with new friends and family over social media and see the impact a guide dog has on their independence.

He said one man now can walk from his home and down the street without fear.

“He can go get a cup of coffee. Just little things like that he wasn’t able to do before,” Darren said.

Being able to help change someone’s life and open up opportunities are what make giving up the puppies so much easier, he said.

“You’ve got to look at the dogs as having a higher calling,” he said.

To help
• For more information about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit www.guidingeyes.org.

• Anyone interested in serving as a puppy raiser, can call Theresa Camloh at (440) 382-9848 or email Therecam@aol.com.

• The Guiding Eyes for the Blind is hosting a golf classic at Fowler’s Mill Golf course in Chesterland, Ohio, on June 8. To register to participate, visit www.thechutter.com. Those interested in being a sponsor, can contact Betsy Dunn at (440) 725-4057. Anyone interested in donating a prize for the raffle, is asked to call Pam Stevenson at (216) 509-0792

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.