Friday, December 12, 2014

Marlaina Lieberg: Celebrating 50 Years as a Guide Dog Handler

Marlaina Lieberg of Burien, Wash., is nothing if not tenacious. As a young 7th grader in the 1960s, she was the first and only student who was visually impaired at her school, and the principal would not allow her to participate in PE classes. With the indignation of a preteen and the determination to participate in all of the same activities as her classmates, Marlaina did what any smart and sassy 12 year-old would do: she wrote to President John F. Kennedy. At the time, JFK was promoting the President's Council on Physical Fitness and its role to serve all Americans, so Marlaina requested that he compel her principal to reconsider. To her delight (but not surprise), the President did just that, and in due haste Marlaina was playing dodgeball with her peers.

It was about that same time that Marlaina met a man with a guide dog. From the moment she heard his story, she knew that traveling with a dog was in her future. She started her campaign to be paired with a guide dog as a teenager almost immediately. “It took a bit longer to get into guide dog school than it did for the President to help me with gym class,” Marlaina said, “but after two years of back and forth letter-writing, my parents and I were invited to the facility for an evaluation. Three months later, I was in class, and on July 9, 1964, I met my first guide, a small female German Shepherd named Scamp. Never will I forget how I felt that first time I took her harness in hand and said, ‘Scamp, forward!’ The very first thought I had was, ‘this must be what it’s like to see; look at me!’”

Flash forward to 2014, and Marlaina is celebrating a golden anniversary: 50 years as a continuous guide dog handler, and she’s still as exhilarated today as she was in her youth. “Working with a guide dog gives me the freedom to move about efficiently and effectively,” she said. “I’m told that when I walk, I have a smile on my face and my head is held high. The ability to move around obstacles without even knowing they were there in the first place is amazing!”

Marlaina (wearing a black hat) kneels down smiling next to her guide Agnes (yellow Lab).

She has certainly seen her fair share of changes in guide dog training over the years, and she’s had to learn and grow with the times herself. “It was a hard leap for me to make to give my dog food rewards,” Marlaina said (a practice introduced in recent years at GDB as part of our positive reinforcement training techniques). “However, this old woman can learn new tricks, and now there isn’t a day that I leave home without my dog’s treat pouch or a pocket filled with training treats. It is so joyful to fix a situation with love, respect and encouragement.” In addition, “The fact that I can teach my dogs custom things these days, like locating crosswalks in the middle of a block, or finding a particular often-used door, adds immeasurably to my independence, and to how sighted society views my confidence and competence.”

That being said, Marlaina recalls being in training with her guide Madeline at GDB’s California campus in 1998, and working with instructors much newer to the field than she. “I was absolutely thrilled with how much respect the training staff showed me,” she said. “One instructor pointed out that I had been working dogs longer than some of them had been alive, and posed to me the question, ‘So why wouldn’t we listen to you?’ The atmosphere was not only one of intense work, but of family and support and laughter.”

Marlin trained with her current guide, Agnes, at GDB’s Oregon campus in 2006, where once again, “the support during my stay was amazing; I believe that GDB has the most respectful and respected trainers and staff in the business.”

So what else is there about GDB that keeps her coming back?

“Is it the fabulous food? Is it the beautiful facilities? Is it the amazing dedication of trainers and staff?” she questioned. “It could be all of those, but I think always the fondest memory is when I meet my new partner. I cannot tell you how emotional meeting the new dog is for me. I am totally blind, and so it isn’t until they bring the dog to my hands that I see who I’m meeting. Usually, the dogs are excited and want to play and lick. I run my hands all over the dog’s body, quickly trying to get to know her, then sit there and cry like a baby while the instructor tells me who I have and what she looks like. Then, spending the next couple of hours alone with my new dog just patting and touching and trying to share my heart and hear hers are times I will never forget.”

Marlaina also enjoys being a part of the community that comes along with being a GDB alum.  “When you meet new people who have dogs from GDB, there’s an instant spark of friendship,” she said. “Additionally, graduates support each other through Alumni Association events, email lists, conferences and more. And I can’t forget the puppy raisers! I am so proud that GDB encourages its graduates and raisers to stay in touch if both wish to do so. I love each and every puppy raiser out there! They really can’t fully know how impactful their efforts will be on the life of a blind person. I am always honored and humbled when I’m asked to speak to puppy groups. They are all truly amazing people, and I’m glad to count many of them as my friends.”

Having been paired with eight dogs through the years, Marlaina is no stranger to the process of retiring a guide and being paired with a new one - which isn’t quite as easy at it might seem, especially from an emotional perspective. Agnes will be 10 in February, so Marlaina is preparing herself once again for the transition.

“As Second Vice President of the American Council of the Blind, I travel extensively from coast to coast to various conferences and conventions. I am also very active at home. Due to my activity level, I do not like to work my dogs past age 10,” she said. “I believe that every day after age 6 is a gift; these dogs are asked to do some very complicated things, and I think they deserve a happy and healthy retirement. So, Agnes will retire in the spring, and she will become our pet and my husband’s dog.

“No matter how many times one goes through the retirement and then the new dog process, it’s hard; it’s hard to say goodbye to the partner in whom you’ve trusted completely for many years, and it’s hard to psych yourself up to start all over again with that new dog.  However, my husband and I are already talking about things like where Agnes will have her bed and where ‘new dog’ will have hers; where ‘new dog’ will lie in the car, and who’s going to eat first each day. Talking about it ahead of time helps me move along the path that will lead me to my next partner.”

Marlaina has two words for anyone considering getting a guide dog: do it! That’s putting it simply, but she believes that putting in the work and making the commitment to the guide dog lifestyle pays rewards in spades.

“Becoming a guide dog handler isn’t easy, but it’s well worth the effort,” she said. “It’s true, you have to take the dog out in all weather; you have to feed and care for the dog; and, you may occasionally meet that uninformed business owner who tells you that dogs are not allowed. However, what you gain cannot be measured. Working through crowds, automatically finding elevator doors, your house, your hotel room, and the ability to follow someone from whom you are getting directions but who has no clue how to do sighted guide - these are just a few of the things you’ll receive from your dog. I think of my dogs as my magic carpet to freedom of movement; with my guide, I’ll go just about anywhere and do so with confidence.

“But above and beyond all this is the love and oneness of spirit that you and your guide will develop together. You have to trust in those four paws, two eyes and that one brilliant brain. In turn, the dog has to trust that you would never knowingly ask it to do something unsafe. I know of no other relationship, human-to-human or human-to-dog, that is built on these precepts. The key is total trust at both ends of the harness. It’s a joy to give it, and it’s a joy to feel it! If you want all of that in your life, a GDB dog is for you!”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving Thanks for Retiree Rose Ramirez

Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) cook and caretaker Rose Ramirez, who was well known for the amazing care she provided for the students in training, recently retired after working at GDB’s San Rafael campus for over 22 years. From grocery shopping and cooking delicious meals to learning each student’s individual needs and giving gentle pats on the back, Rose proved to be an integral part of the heart and soul of GDB.

GDB Support Center generalist Ken Altenburger has known Rose for over 17 years. “I can honestly say that she is one of the treasures of GDB,” said Ken. “I have been on the receiving end of her care and kindness from a client’s perspective and I also enjoyed working alongside her as a fellow staff member. Rose always greeted you with a warm smile and it was clear that she cared very deeply for the students in each class – she worked tirelessly for the benefit of anyone needing assistance.”

Rose smiles while gently patting a student on the back during lunch (other students and guide dogs are in the background at another table).

Rose moved to the United States from Mexico as a young adult and learned to cook at her brother’s restaurant in Martinez, CA for 15 years before coming to GDB. Rose said she served the students in the best way she knew how in order to make sure they had everything they needed, even if it is small. “Rose is so thoughtful and always remembered everything about you,” said GDB graduate Keith Breaux. “I truly appreciated the way she took care of me during my stay. I will always remember her as being one of the best parts about coming to GDB for training.”

From the students and instructors to the nurses and the rest of the GDB staff, Rose was someone who always made everyone feel welcome. “I was very lucky to work at GDB,” said Rose. “One of my main goals while I was at GDB was to make sure the students were as comfortable as possible. I wanted to make sure it felt like a warm home when they came for training.”

Rose (wearing a beautiful red pattern jacket) poses in the GDB kitchen with freshly baked cookies.

While it can be exciting for students to work with a new partner, there is also the reality of being away from home and family, meeting and working with new people and participating in a comprehensive training experience. “Having the support of someone as warm and caring as Rose took any stress that I had away, said GDB graduate Penny Hardin. “Rose showed genuine concern and interest in our well-being and her cooking was amazing! Her friendly smile and encouragement were constant reminders of how much she cared about us. It’s clear to me that Rose was a very important part of the GDB team who, along with the instructors and nurses, helped us to be successful every day.”

Over the course of more than two decades, Rose has had a tremendous impact at GDB and she will always be remembered for her incredible and thoughtful work ethic. “Some people talk about wanting to serve – Rose truly does serve, every day of her life,” said Ken.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Halloween Costume Contest Goes to the Dogs!

By: Patti Ehle, GDB Utah Alumni Chapter Vice President of Greatest Paws on Earth

This Halloween costume contest clearly went to the dogs. On October 25th, approximately 50 puppy raisers and guide dog users joined together in Salt Lake City, UT for the third year of an outrageous Halloween costume contest. Special thanks to the GDB puppy raising club, Paws to Love, who led the event! Also making an appearance was Lauren Ross, GDB Field Service Manager from Chicago who has been working in Utah with guide dog users this month, and Lauren Grimditch, GDB Community Field Representative, who was there visiting from Colorado.

Guide dog puppy Marigold wears a yellow and orange flower wreath on her head. A young girl in a princess costume is next to Marigold.

puppy raisers Megan and Haley with their puppies Paris, Denmark and Dinah dressed as Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, the three godmothers in Sleeping Beauty.

GDB grad Scott Wilcock and guide dog Senator (black Lab) wears a colorful tie.

Every one of the 25 dogs was dressed and ready to shake a hula skirt or balance a coffee cup on their head for the judges. Everyone had clever costumes like GDB graduate Morris Bowman and his guide Daniel who wore formal wear with real doggie tails. Other highlights from the puppy raisers included: a Star Wars themed dog costume, Little Red Riding Hood, and Kermit the Frog. Puppy raisers Stephanie and Myka dressed Marigold with a marigold flower crown, and Karen Fuller's dog was dressed as a travel brochure. One of the youngest dogs was entered by The Davis family who dressed up Will, a very young Golden Retriever, in a football jersey that said “wide retriever.”

Black Lab puppy Gwen dressed as a coffee with a sleeve and lid as the Starbarks costume (handled by puppy raiser Hannah Thompson dressed as a barista with a green aproon).

Yellow lab puppy Lisbon dressed as a Lisbon travel brochure.

Yellow lab puppy Smitty dressed up with three fellow Star Wars characters.

For the contest, there were 3 categories of costumes: Namesake, Halloween and Team. First place for the Halloween category was Gwen with the Starbarks costume (handled by puppy raiser Hannah Thompson). First place for the Team category was Smitty's Starwars costumes, and first place for the Namesake category was Rocket. The overall costume contest winner went to puppy raisers Megan and Haley with their puppies Paris, Denmark and Dinah dressed as Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, the three godmothers in Sleeping Beauty.

Black lab puppy rocket dressed as a white rocket with black sunglasses and colorful paper flames at the end.

Yellow lab puppy Penne dressed as Little Red Riding Hood looks up at the camera.

Yellow lab puppy Trivia smiles up at the camera dressed as Kermit the Frog.

Prizes ranged from a large dog bed and dog treats to all sorts of dog goodies to make any puppy cheer!  Even a Kindle was a huge surprise to the puppy raiser who excitedly received it. All prizes were generously donated from business like: R.C. Willey, Petsmart, Great Harvest, North American Pet Company, and many other wonderful supporters. Thank you all for coming out in style!

Young yellow lab puppy Will in a black jersey poses with a boy holding a football.

All photos by: Lisa Thompson

Friday, October 31, 2014

GDB Puppy Raising Scholarship Essay Submission: How Do You Give Them Up?

By: Sophia Hamilton (2014 GDB Puppy Raising Scholarship Recipient for Overall Achievement)

“How will you give her up?” Everywhere I went this question was posed about Almond, the little guide dog puppy that stood by my side. Truthfully I had asked myself this same question countless times, and in the beginning I had no idea what the answer was.

Almond was the first of three puppies I raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind. I began raising puppies in 2009, when my 8th grade teacher assigned the project I was to complete over the course of my final year in grade school. I decided that training a guide dog puppy would be perfect. Becoming part of this organization has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I have done thus far in my life.

Throughout my four years of high school, I had puppies on campus with me from time to time. People would ask me all the time about the program and what my specific duties with these dogs were. Through this program I made connections with many people at my high school and in the community in general. One of my now closest friends, Kailee, and I met through GDB. She is a year below me in school and was inspired to join our local puppy club after seeing me at school with my second pup, Shimmer. Before joining the club, Kailee, like just about every other person asked the question, “How do you give these dogs up?” This time I finally had an answer, and I told the story of Almond’s graduation:

“Standing on stage, holding Almond’s leash in my hand for the last time, a shiver rippled down my spine. My fingers tightened around the leash as I fought back the tears that were threatening to overtake me any second. I was not ready to let my little girl go. As I listened to the voice of the woman who was to receive her, a wave of pride came over me. She said, ‘Without her, my dreams would never be fulfilled. Now I can go home with my little Almond and do all the things I want to without worrying how I will do them.’ I knew right then that I was able to give her up because all along she was never really mine to keep. I had raised her for a greater purpose, to give a person who is blind her mobility, and that day I let Almond go for the last time, knowing I had done just that.”

This story really inspired Kailee to go forward with her desire to raise a guide dog as she saw just how rewarding it can be.

My work with guide dog puppies has taught me persistence, perseverance, and patience. It has contributed greatly to who I am today, as it has shown me the joy that results from selflessness. Through my experiences I have found a passion in serving others. Although I am not certain of the career path I will follow, I know that many of the values and work ethics I will carry with me came from my involvement with GDB. Raising these dogs has shown me just how valuable serving and working with others is. Upon witnessing the strength and love of the partnerships of these individuals and their guides, my goal and desire to help improve the lives of others has been further solidified. I want to continue to experience the joy I get from taking part in changing a life.

Check out a video project Sophia created entitled, “Raising Three Guide Dog Puppies: Sophia’s Story,” on GDB’s YouTube channel here: