By Guest Writer Peggy O'Dell
For 30 years, Doug Martens thought about getting a Leader Dog. He knew he wanted one, but with work and family responsibilities, it was just never the right time. "I just couldn't get away for the three and a half weeks I would need to go up to Leader Dog," Doug says. "So when the opportunity came for me to go, I was more than ready."
After decades of using a white cane, Doug received his first Leader Dog, a yellow Labrador named Brodie, three years ago. From the start, he was amazed at how much having Brodie enriched his life, both personally and professionally.
As a senior rehabilitation specialist for the State of Wisconsin Office for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Doug visits people in their homes to teach them adaptive living skills. "What I do is really about teaching people to think differently about things we all do every day, like how to safely work the stove and the microwave," he says.
Doug finds that with Brodie accompanying him to his appointments, it's easier to walk into a client's home for the first time. "Everyone is interested in meeting her and learning about what she does for me," he says. "She's an instant ice breaker."
After meeting Brodie, one of Doug's clients went to Leader Dog and received a dog of her own; a second client is also considering it. "Everyone wants to know about how the training works. I reassure them that they will never be left alone at Leader Dog, and they will learn to trust in their dog, just like I did."
Doug recalls how another client, a woman who suffered with very high blood pressure, said she felt calmer after meeting Brodie. "She just fell in love with her. Brodie fell asleep with her head on the woman's foot, and she said she just felt relaxed right away."
In his personal life, he finds that people react differently to him as well. "People don't know how to interact with someone who uses a white cane, but with a dog, it makes it easier for people to strike up a conversation with me," he says.
Doug said that for the most part, people are pretty good about respecting the fact that Brodie is working, but people still often ask if they can pet her. "'Is she working right now?' they always want to know," he said. "I usually say 'Well, she's not working that hard right now.' Brodie always looks to me first before they pet her to make sure it's OK."
From their first days together, Doug was amazed at how well matched he is with Brodie. "She is so mellow and laid back, just like me. I can't imagine ever going back to a cane."
Doug remembers when he first started training with Brodie and how they worked together to find a comfortable walking speed. "She started out as a pretty fast walker, and I used to think 'If she makes a mistake, it's going to leave a mark,'" he laughs. "But she never did. She just never ceases to amaze me."
When Brodie is home and the harness comes off, she's just like any other family pet, playing with her canine companion, Izzy the yorkie-poo. "Izzy is 14 lbs. of fury," Doug laughs. "She likes to fight with Brodie over a pull toy, but Brodie just laughs at her and walks away."
After three years of having Brodie by his side, Doug can't imagine ever not having a guide dog. "Everyone here just loves her. My wife is so much more comfortable knowing I have her with me. I suspect when she is no longer able to work she will stay with me as a pet for the rest of her life," he said. "And I know I will get another one, there are just too many benefits not to. She uses her eyes and her training to get me safely where I need to go. She amazes me every day."