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Guide dogs change lives

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Guide Dogs of Texas is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Most folks have never heard of the nonprofit. But it has quietly improved the lives of the sight impaired across Texas for nearly 30 years. And the dream of changing many more keeps it going.

Today it’s the only school of its kind in the state accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation. And, as the demand for these amazing canines increases, it is ramping up operations, too, in spite of limited funds.   

“The population of Texas keeps growing, and the need grows with it,” CEO Sandy Merrill said. “We’re also seeing the impact of diabetic retinopathy increasing, causing blindness. And sadly, a lot of the people being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes early in their lives are now starting to lose sight. Our population is also aging, and one in three people over 65 experience some kind of eye disease.”

The organization charges $1 to clients for its services, from assessment to providing individually suited, rigorously trained guide dogs and continuous support. For a blind person, a guide dog can make a world of difference. Faithful companions and skilled guides, the canines perform an amazing range of tasks and adjust to each owner.

GDTX has 30 active client-dog teams working, and more dogs in training than ever before. Still, there’s a two-year waiting list. It can be shorter if an applicant is deemed a perfect match for a dog.

Guide dogs are a very special breed – so special, in fact, that Merrill and her staff have developed their own in-house breeding program with Labrador retrievers.

Training starts almost at birth. At eight weeks, volunteers take the pups for 18 months to two years. Genetic testing for problems and regular progress assessments keep the process on track. It’s been so successful about 75% graduate as guide dogs.

Those that don’t make the cut often go to other kinds of service, such as ambassador dogs or rescue dogs, or work in the organization’s innovative Buddy Dogs Youth Program for young people 17 and under with impaired or failing vision.

Merrill never imagined she would follow this path.

“When I started 20 years ago, we were operating out of a rented house living with the dogs we were training, and clients would come and stay with us,” she said.

Today the headquarters has kennels, a training pavilion and offices in the Shearer Hills area. Clients don’t have to travel – GDTX sends certified instructors to them, and they spend weeks training the new human-dog teams to work together in their own environments, a practice that sets the organization apart.

It also has its own certification program, a three- to four-year apprenticeship. Merrill is hoping to expand that program with new applicants.

“It is a real career, and it’s the best job in the world, and one of the best-kept secrets. You get to work with these incredible creatures, and then you go out and you change someone’s life,” she said.     

To help more people with vision issues, GDTX needs additional support, from volunteers and sustaining members to corporate sponsorships, such as the $8,000 in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning improvements Shafer Services Plus recently donated. The owner volunteered with his parents at GDTX when he was young, and never forgot the work these dedicated people and dogs do without fanfare.

Their mission deserves support. To help, visit guidedogsoftexas.org.

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