Guide dog and master share unexplainable bond


THE SOUND of a fan, the branches of a pine tree and a beautiful German shepherd named Keenen help Joseph Huffman see.

"When we're taking a walk on the boardwalk in Ocean City, and we go from one end to the other, I know we've reached our street, Eighth Street, when I hear the fan running in the restaurant there. It has a special sound, and just one time on that walk and my dog also knows we are at our destination," says Huffman, 64, a retired Baltimore City policeman who was blinded by a stray bullet more than 20 years ago.

"And, when we turn and go down Eighth Street and I feel the branches of the pine tree, I know we have reached our place," he says.

Huffman was injured in 1967 when he and his partner responded to a burglary attempt at Pratt and Paca streets. Huffman has no sight whatsoever, just glass eyes.

Keenen is Huffman's fourth guide dog for the blind. He received him in May after training with him at the in San Rafael, Calif., kennels of Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc.

"All of my dogs have been German shepherds," says Huffman. "I asked for them, if possible, although golden and Labrador retrievers are also used by the kennels."

Guide dogs usually work about eight years, some as long as 12. Once a dog is too old to be effective, it goes to a new home or stays with its master, who gets another dog as guide. If a dog's master dies when it is still young, the dog will be returned to the kennels and trained for another master.

Huffman's dogs have all died in service. His first was Richie, who came to him at 17 months in 1968 and was put down in 1976 because his back legs became paralyzed. That same year Huffman got 2-year-old Lindsey, who died in 1985 from a liver problem. Huffman then got Ali, another 2-year-old who served him six years, "until she just lost it and went down suddenly and died from a severe paralysis this past March."

"When you lose a dog, it is like losing one of the family. A guide dog knows he is yours and you are his. Being totally dependent on each other, the bond you reach together is just something you couldn't explain," says Huffman.

Although frustrated by his blindness, Huffman courageously goes where, and does what, he chooses. "I can't see what I'm doing, but I just go ahead because there is nothing I can do about it," he says as he cheerfully recounts his busy independence with Keenen.

"We cut the grass with a gasoline mower; we walk more than two miles a day; we play ball together; and we pick the vegetables I plant. Keenen likes the tomatoes and puts them in his mouth.

"Do I cook? Well, I wouldn't starve," says Huffman.

Huffman and his wife, Juanita, who is retired from Snap-On Tools, live in Ferndale. They have three grown children -- two daughters and a son -- and two grandchildren.

The family also owns "a mutt named Duchess. I'm concerned over her. She is age 15 and showing signs of age. Keenen likes her," says animal-lover Huffman.

Guide dogs are free to those who apply and are eligible. The training and round-trip transportation to California is also paid for. To be eligible, a person must be legally blind and physically and temperamentally suited to use a dog. Except for very young children, there is no age limit.

Guide dogs -- the retrievers and German shepherds -- are bred from the purebred stock at the kennels. When they are 6 to 11 weeks old, the dogs are carefully tested for sharp eyes, good ears, general intelligence and willingness to work. From 3 to 16 months, they live with 4-H Club members to become accustomed to family life and learn simple obedience and social skills.

At 16 months, the dog returns to the kennels for five months of training to become a guide dog. It learns, among many things, to help its master clear obstacles, including those overhead, and to retrieve whatever he needs.

Because it cannot tell red from green lights, the dog will stop at every curb. Its owner listens for traffic patterns and if he signals his dog to begin crossing the street and a car is coming, the dog will not obey -- this is called intelligent disobedience. The dog also learns to ignore distractions, such as other animals and people.

At the San Rafael kennels, "we go into a room and sit and talk with the trainer who then lets a dog in from another room," says Huffman. "From that moment on, that dog is yours to train with, go out on the streets with and live and eat with. By the time you and your dog leave, it has become yours."

Guide dogs must be checked each year in the master's home. An instructor determines that the dog is receiving care and that the master is not abusing it or using it for begging. The dog must also have an annual health certificate signed by a veterinarian.

Guide Dogs for the Blind was established in 1942 to serve blind veterans, but today it helps anyone who is blind. The agency is dependent upon donations; it receives no state or federal funds.

For more information, write to Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., Box 151200, San Rafael, Calif. 94915. Or call (415) 499-4000.

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