Stories of Longevity

By Guest Writer Peggy O’Dell

Published in: Update - Issue 1 - 2014 »   
A black and white photo of Doris in 1955. She is outside, seated on a white bench and wearing a dress

Doris Henderson in 1955

When Doris Henderson started volunteering for Leader Dogs for the Blind, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States and a gallon of gas cost a whopping 21 cents.

“Back in 1955 they only had a staff of 12 people, and they really didn’t believe in volunteers, so when they needed help with something the instructors’ wives would come in and help out. There were five of us and I guess you could say we were the first volunteers,” she recalled. “We sent out the bulk mailings, went out in the field with our husbands to help clients with problems, and we went to the ladies’ meetings at the Lions Club.” Doris’ husband, Jim, was the fifth instructor employed by Leader Dog.

Looking back, Doris marvels at all the changes she has seen during her six decades with the organization. “I remember we only had eight clients come each month for training, and they were only from the United States; we hadn’t even expanded into Mexico yet,” she said. “I never would have imagined it would grow to be so big. There’s not a building still here that was here when I started.”

For Doris, Leader Dog has been a family affair. Her husband Jim went on to be the director of training and worked here for 42 years. Her dad and one of her sons worked here also, and her daughter, Karen Burmann, currently works as the programs & services coordinator. “All together, eight members of my family have worked for Leader Dog over the years, but I’m the only one who was never on the payroll.”

Four older women, including Doris, sit around a table in the Leader Dog mailroom in 2010. They are putting holiday cards and envelopes into packages

Doris Henderson also continues to volunteer
with mailings. Pictured here are volunteers
(left to right) Joan Ersin, Doris Griffiths, Doris
Henderson and Jan Long.

Today, Doris puts her decades of involvement to good use by serving as Leader Dog’s volunteer historian. “I was asked to do this back in 2000 because I was part of the history,” Doris said. “I’m not a trained historian, but I do what I think needs to be done.”

As the organization’s “walking history book,” Doris volunteers one day a week, sifting through old papers and photographs and setting up archival files that will preserve the information for decades to come.

“It’s a really big job that will never end because we are making history every day,” she said. “I’m 86 years old now and it’s been a part of my life for 60 years, so why stop now?”

Puppies, Puppies, Puppies

Long before she raised her first Leader Dog puppy, dogs were a huge part of Cheri Baker’s life. As a self-described “crazy dog person,” she bred Labrador retrievers and was involved in obedience and agility training. When she heard about the opportunity to raise puppies she thought it would be fun to raise “one.” That was 20 years and 20 puppies ago.

“When I started raising in 1994 Leader Dog used donated dogs because they didn’t have a breeding program yet. I donated and raised one of my own puppies, a yellow lab named Lexa,” she said.

Cheri remembers feeling isolated in her early days of puppy raising. Not only did she live three hours away in Indiana, but she didn’t know if there were any other raisers nearby. “We were pretty much on our own back then. We received a little pamphlet of information and that was it.”

Today, Cheri serves as a puppy counselor, holding monthly meetings with the seven raisers in her area. Together they take the puppies out on regular field trips for training and support each other through the process. They also have training standards to follow. “Having puppy counselors to help the raisers and In For Training (IFT) standards to follow are definitely two of the best changes to the puppy raising program,” Cheri said.

One of Cheri’s favorite parts of puppy raising is having the opportunity to meet the client who receives the dog.

Cheri sits on a couch in a room in the Leader Dog kennel. She has one arm around a chocolate lab. The lab is holding a dog toy in his mouth

Cheri Baker with Keefer (20th puppy)

“Back in the day we didn’t have contact with the clients, but now we get to meet them and it is so rewarding. It’s closure for me to see the dog that I raised and loved from a puppy go off and do what they were meant to do.” Cheri has kept in contact with several clients and is always thrilled to hear how well they are doing with their dogs.

In addition to raising puppies and serving as a counselor, Cheri also hosted two breeding stock dogs. As an experienced breeder, hosting breeding stock females was a perfect fit. “The breeding program has also changed since I hosted my first mom. Back then I took the litter to my own veterinarian to be checked out and then the raisers came to my home to pick up their puppy,” she recalled. Today, puppies go back to Leader Dog for evaluation before being assigned to a raiser.

After two decades of volunteering for Leader Dog in multiple capacities, Cheri is amazed at how much the organization has grown. “I have really enjoyed watching the changes over the years. Everything is so different from when I started volunteering 20 years ago. I hope to be involved with Leader Dog for many years to come.”

Instructors and Training

Larry Heflin was a young Army MP (military police) when he volunteered to train dogs for scouting and bomb detection work. Little did he know he was setting the course for life after the Army. Larry retired from Leader Dog in 2009 after a 41-year career.

Larry stands outside at the left end of a row of four Leader Dog instructors. They are standing in front of an overhang with the words Leader Dogs for the Blind on it

Instructors (left to right) Larry Heflin,
Brad Scott, Art Flemming and Randy Horn

“Things were so different when I started at Leader Dog back in 1968. There was only one kennel then and all the instructors were men,” he said. “I started the three-year apprenticeship training program at a time when instructors would sometimes live in the residence hall with the clients for a month at a time. It was hard to be away from our families for such a long period.”

When Larry started training, he estimates 90% of the dogs they used were German shepherds, with the occasional golden retriever or Labrador retriever. “We didn’t have a breeding program yet, so the dogs we used were donated by the public. We would evaluate every dog to see if we thought it would make a good Leader Dog. We usually only accepted about half of the dogs for training, but when we got a good working German shepherd you couldn’t beat it. They were very easy to train and dedicated to their partner.”

The training program in the late 1960s worked the dogs primarily in Rochester, with the occasional trip to a nearby town. They didn’t train in malls or even large department stores, choosing instead to visit the local “five and dime” for store training. They learned how to navigate revolving doors and elevators, but not escalators. “We had escalators back then, but we didn’t feel it was safe for the clients to use them,” he said.

Photo of Larry standing outside at the left end of a row of four Leader Dog instructors. They are standing in front of an overhang with the words Leader Dogs for the Blind on it

Larry Heflin in 2005

Larry spent the last four years of his career working as a field representative, a position that didn’t exist when he started with Leader Dog. As a field rep, he assisted clients who had completed training but were having an issue with their dog or travel environment. He also had the opportunity to travel to VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals and rehabilitation centers to talk about the Leader Dog program and how it impacts the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired.

“I loved my time at Leader Dog,” he said. “I saw a lot of changes, and they always kept up with the times to make sure the clients’ needs were met.”

The Client Experience

It was the early 1960s when Marianne Miner traveled to Michigan to receive her first Leader Dog. Now, 52 years later, she is amazed at how the program has evolved.

Black and white photo of Marianne standing in a hallway, smiling and holding the leash of her German shepherd Leader Dog

Marianne Miner in 1962 with LD Skip

“One of my favorite changes is the new residence hall. When I first came to Leader Dog in 1962, we all had roommates. Now everyone has a private room with their own bathroom. It’s so nice to have privacy,” she said.

Marianne recalled that in the early days, instructors would work on basic commands with two clients at the same time. Today’s instructors are able to provide more individualized attention and tailor the training to the client’s unique circumstances.

“I live in a housing development right now that does not have sidewalks. With my current dog, Lily, we received special training on how to walk safely along the side of a road.”

Additionally, dogs today are trained to handle many more scenarios, like escalators, revolving doors and airplane travel. “My very first dog was a German shepherd named Skip. He was so afraid of the plane on the way home that he sat in my lap the whole way. I had to talk to him and pet him until the plane landed,” she laughed. “I’m sure we were a sight to see for all the other passengers!”

Black and white photo of an old client room. There are two twin beds and a small table and chairs. A female client sits on one of the beds holding the leash of her Leader Dog, both somewhat obscured by shadows from light coming in the room's window

One of the shared client rooms in 1980

Another change that Marianne appreciates is the addition of field representatives. “It used to be that if I had a problem with my dog or a question after I got home, I would call Leader Dog and try to get in touch with the right person to help me,” she said. “But now I get called regularly from my field rep checking to see if I have any questions or issues they can help me with. Having them always available to help is wonderful.”

Looking back, Marianne is proud to have been witness to Leader Dog’s history. From the new residence hall to the addition of female instructors, she has watched the changes unfold with each visit to the Leader Dog campus. “It’s just marvelous what they can do now. They have come so far over the years.”