“You can go to a job everyday that’s just a job, or you can go to a place that’s changing people’s lives” This is how Jeff Stein describes his calling at Leader Dogs for the Blind, in Rochester Hills, Michigan. I met up with Jeff at The Total Pet Expo in the Planet Dog booth.
After speaking with Jeff briefly at the show I knew that Leader Dogs was a place I needed to visit and share. Jeff was kind enough to make time for me and took me on a tour of the Kennel area and gave me some history on this amazing organization.
It’s obvious from the minute you enter the building that Leader Dogs is a caring environment. It’s bustling with staff and volunteers happily working and playing with Leaders in training, clearly displaying the value of Teamwork. Leader Dogs for the Blind is a non profit organization relying totally on donations from caring and generous individuals, foundations such as Planet Dog Foundation, community service groups such as Lions Clubs and Corporate donations. These generous donations allow for Leader Dogs to thrive and continue to grow and carry out their mission.
” empowering people who are blind or visually impaired with lifelong skills for independent travel through quality Leader Dogs, highly effective client instruction and innovative services.”
They have to run just as efficiently as any corporation, if not more so. They are responsible to their donors and their clients to account for where and how they allocate the monies they receive. When I asked Jeff what book any business owner should have on their shelf he was quick to mention Good to Great, by Jim Collins, stating “you should always be striving to be better. “
The origin of Leader Dogs dates back to 1939, by three Detroit area Lions club members. They had a friend that needed a guide dog and couldn’t qualify, so together they formed Leader Dogs so he could be eligible for one; their legacy is now 74 years strong. The Lions Clubs are still very involved in Leader dogs today.
Like all well run organizations Leader Dogs has evolved over the years. When they first started they used Dobermans and Smooth Collies. Today they have Labrador retrievers, German Shepherds and Golden retrievers. They used to take donation dogs and rescues but found they did not have the success rate, only 5 percent and now they have better odds with their own full breeding colony. All their breeding dogs live full-time in host homes throughout the country. Pups are sent off ,at 6-8 weeks, to Puppy Raisers, who donate: time, food, toys, and veterinary care for 12-15 months.
Leader Dogs acknowledges the difficulty in sending their pup back and have what they call a Turnover Room. It has pictures of successful teams, comfy couches and a huge toy box
that a volunteer made for them. Jeff relates the process to sending your child off to college.
The current President and CEO’s Susan Daniel’s incentives included increase dog/human contact while in training; the enrichment rooms concept developed from this. Puppies come back to Leader Dogs after 12-15 months of living and interacting at all times with their Puppy Raiser family, to life in a kennel. This can be very stressful for a young dog. The enrichment rooms simulate 4 key areas: kitchen, grooming room, bedroom and living room. Here Volunteers spend two hours at a time loving on a new young dog every half hour, allowing them to just be dogs and ease their transition to kennel and working life.
After 4 weeks of transitioning into kennel life, vet checks and spay neuter the dogs are divided up between the trainers. Each trainer works with approximately 38 dogs. As they progress through their training they move into the various bays of the kennel, it runs very efficiently.
All their training is based on Positive Reinforcement, Jeff explains, they need to learn to think. They have to learn to make decisions on their own to ensure the safety of their partner. Clicker training is a big part of their program.
Leader dogs has a number of programs available to their clients. All can be seen in detail here.
Some of the the behind the scenes programs are also unique and trail blazing. They have a pups in the Prison program. They have 100 pups in 6 prisons across the country.
The puppies go to the prisons at the same age as they do to puppy raisers. The average success rate of a puppy is 40%, Pups in Prison have a 55% success rate; prisoners take a great deal of pride in this accomplishment. One of their programs in Iowa has a 97% success rate of their prisoners succeeding after release. One prisoner out of Iowa continued to work in dog training and is still a puppy raiser 3 years after release. Proving that giving back truly works.
Not all dogs make it as a Leader Dog. Some just don’t have the temperament that is required. For these dogs what they get is a career change. Leader Dogs works with various organizations to find the right fit; Policing, Hospitals and another unique program, Canine Advocacy Program. Some go on to simply be happy loved family pets.
Leader Dogs is very proud of their ability to completely fund a dog for their clients. They pay airfare, for clients in the USA, and all costs of the dog and the clients room and board when at the facility. This can only be done through donations and fund raising.
The day that I was visiting was a special day for their clients. The class in residence were being assigned their Leaders. This is both an amazing and stressful day, no visitors are allowed to tour the Residence during this process. Exhibiting how they stay true to their value ” Respect and compassion for people and dogs”
Jeff did explain that Leader Dogs does everything they can to make the Clients comfortable during their stay. They have a fitness room, a piano lounge, dining hall, with capability to cater to special diets as well as individual client rooms.
After spending an afternoon at Leader Dogs for the Blind with Kennel Care Manager,Jeff Stein, it’s clear that he is passionate about not only his work at Leader Dogs; but about the overall organization. He is humbled to be able to come to a place everyday and do what he loves. He is honoured to be a part of changing someone’s life everyday.
For anyone working in or considering the area of Service Dogs, Leader Dogs for the Blind would be an amazing organization to use as a reference. More information onLeader Dogs for the Blind go to their website.
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