Gardnerville woman has a ‘working dog’ to help her be independent | RecordCourier.com
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Gardnerville woman has a ‘working dog’ to help her be independent

by Merrie Leininger

Heather Bradley, 31, found herself going blind just a couple of years ago due to a rare disease she had unknowingly carried for years.

A young mother with two girls, Alyssa, 5, and Megan, 3, Bradley was struggling to take care of her children and maintain a semblance of independence. The family, including her husband, Dale, who works at Bently, had only moved to Gardnerville from Southern California a year before.

After two years and four laser surgeries that arrested the progression of the disease, a subretinal membrane peal caused a wrinkling in her eye that resulted in more damage to her eyesight, and she decided it was time to get help.

Snuggle, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, was the help she needed to become independent.

“That’s probably the hardest thing about being blind is not being able to be independent. It’s nice to be able to go somewhere by myself now. When I first got here, I walked over to my friend’s house – she lives way on the other side of the Ranchos – and she was shocked. I was so excited, I said, ‘I came all the way by myself!,'” Bradley said.

While the dog has given her a sense of independence, Bradley now has to deal with those who don’t understand how to treat a working dog, she said.

Many people assume that because Bradley wears glasses she must only be training the dog, she said.

However, Bradley wore glasses to improve her eyesight before the disease, so they still can improve what little sight she has left.

“I can’t read or drive. I can’t see past 2 feet in front of my face. I wear glasses because I’m badly nearsighted and the glasses still aid that part of my vision. I see colors, but I don’t have depth perception and can’t see details,” she explained.

Snuggle helps Bradley when she is going to the grocery store or walking her daughter to kindergarten, leading Bradley around obstacles and stopping when she needs to step down.

Going to the grocery store can now take her twice as long, however, because so many people inadvertently distract Snuggle.

“I just want people to understand she is a working dog. If I am walking with her with a harness, people should not touch her, people should not pet her without asking. Always ask, then I can make her sit, and I don’t have a problem with that. I will answer any questions,” Bradley said.

One major problem is when adults don’t control their children and then become angry when Bradley corrects them.

“Children will pet her as I’m walking by. I try to explain they should never touch or feed a guide ,dog. They call to the dog and distract her. She’s still just a dog – if you try to feed her, she’ll still try to eat it, and if you call, she’ll try to look,” she said.

In fact, a state Senate bill is being considered that makes it a crime to harass a working dog or a police animal.

SB396 passed the Senate committee on natural resources, agriculture and mining April 7 and states: “A person shall not willfully and maliciously (a) beat, harass or (b) intimidate a guide dog, helping dog or other service animal.”

If a dog is beaten or harassed, the offender can be charged with a gross misdemeanor. If they intimidate the dog, they can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Bradley said she was also concerned about losing control of a situation when loose dogs come up to Snuggle.

“She’s not trained to respond to an attack. If she’s attacked, she will not work for me anymore because she’s afraid,” she said.

Bradley spent a month away from home in San Rafael, Calif., training with Snuggle. She is trained to lead Bradley across a street, go around objects and then bring Bradley back to the original path and stop when there is a step or object in the path.

The pair graduated at the end of February. It takes six months to a year for the dog and person to really work as a team.

Because Bradley and Snuggle are the only working dog team in Douglas County, Bradley said she is happy to answer questions on the street or in a more formal situation. If any group would like her to speak, they can call her at home at 265-7504.

Laura Lau, leader of the 4-H Guide Dog Puppy Club, said people should learn to treat puppies in training with the same respect as working dogs. However, she encourages her trainers to stop and answer any questions people have for them.

“The more information we get to the public about why it’s important not to disturb the dogs, the better, so people like Heather can have the accessibility she needs,” Lau said.

She said the club has seven dogs with four children and three adults in the area. The dogs come from the same place Bradley did her training with Snuggle, Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif.

Those seven dogs go everywhere with their trainers during the 14 to 18 months they live here to become socialized and learn basic obedience commands. They then return to San Rafael to train with a blind person.

“When they are matched with a person, we get a name and address and get to go down to the graduation in San Rafael. The blind person is up on the stage and the trainer brings the puppy out and gets to meet and talk to them and find out where they are from and what kind of person they are,” she said.

Trainers, who can be any age from 9 years old and up, must make a commitment to the months of constantly being with the dog and attending the meetings held a couple of times a month.

“Before I give anybody a dog, they must show commitment for two to three months. I usually have them puppy sitting to let them know what it’s like. It’s more like having a baby. People think they’re just cute, but they take a lot of work too. They also have to come to a minimum of 80 percent of the meetings,” Lau said.

She said it is also difficult because the trainer just has to give up the dog at the end of the year. She said she is very proud of such an unselfish act, especially by her students.

“It’s very rare, especially for kids, which is such a ‘me’ generation, to do something so unselfish,” she said. “I have a puppy that has to be returned Wednesday, and I already I know she’s having a hard time. It’s not easy, but we get to see how independent it makes the people,” she said.

Anyone interested in raising guide dogs can call the extension office at 782-9960.