50 Years, 8 Dogs, 1 Determined Woman
By Guest Writer Peggy O'Dell
August 5, 1963. Pauline Ulrey remembers that day as if it were yesterday, not five decades ago. That was when, only five days after meeting someone who had a Leader Dog, the shy 18 year old was driven to Rochester by her teacher, Miss Parker, to take part in the Leader Dog program. Only two days later, Pauline received her first dog, Danny, and the course of her life was forever changed.
Pauline at age 18 with
Leader Dog Danny in 1963.
"It all happened pretty quickly back then. That was before they had the application process they have now," she recalls. "It was my first trip away from home, and it was kind of scary."
Pauline's class had 12 clients and two instructors, and while the length of training was the same as it is today, the process was very different. Country travel training consisted of walking to downtown Rochester on a back road. There was no downtown training center then, but Pauline remembers sitting on the steps of the old Masonic Temple waiting for her turn with an instructor. The only training they did outside of Rochester was a trip to nearby Pontiac to visit a dime store. "We worked with the dogs around the store and the food counter," Pauline said. "And I ran into the person who donated Danny to Leader Dog, so they got to see him work."
In 1963, all of the dogs were donated to Leader Dog. There was no puppy raising program, so the client and their dog were learning everything together for the first time. "The puppy raisers they have today are fantastic. By the time the dog starts his training he has already been exposed to so much. Fifty years ago dogs weren't trained on revolving doors and escalators because they were considered too dangerous for them," she remembers. "But the training is so great now, Gundy [her eighth and current dog], won't go past a moving sidewalk at the airport—he loves them!"
Pauline and Leader
Dog Keller in 1986.
When Pauline returned home to Indiana with Danny, she moved out into independent living. Her former teacher, Miss Parker, wanted her to go to college, but she went to vocational rehabilitation instead, where they told her she wasn't college material. Miss Parker disagreed and paid Pauline's college tuition. After four semesters of straight A's, Pauline proved herself and vocational rehab took over her tuition. She went on to earn her master's degree in social work from Indiana University. Miss Parker was at her graduation to cheer her on.
"Before I had Danny I was shy and introverted and never really participated in class. He was with me all through college and I gained so much confidence and self-esteem," she said.
Times were different then, and Danny wasn't always welcome in restaurants and businesses. "It was a terrible thing then to have a dog in a restaurant, and they didn't have to comply. I had to learn how to stand up for both of us, and explain what Danny did for me."
Danny was by her side when she accepted her first job with the state of Indiana, where she spent 24 years before retiring in 1998 as an assistant program director for a rehabilitation center. The same day she retired from the state, she joined Leader Dog as a graduate field representative. Prior to that, she had been a volunteer field representative for 15 years.
In her position as a field representative, Pauline travels to Lions conventions and other events to speak about Leader Dog. As an active Lion herself ("In 1988 I was the first woman to join the Southport Indiana Lions Club"), she particularly enjoys talking to Leo Clubs, youth groups within a Lions Club who volunteer in their community. "Leo Clubs are a great way for kids to get involved in their community. They work hard at fundraising and have fun at the same time," she says.
In her travels, Pauline is often asked why someone should go to Leader Dog for a guide dog. "I always tell them to think about how they would like their life to change. Getting a dog can help them meet their goals."
Pauline is living proof. After 50 years and eight dogs, she looks back on her life and can't believe all that she has achieved. "There's no way I thought I would ever have the life that I do. I am in total disbelief sometimes at all that I have accomplished."
And she has no plans to slow down. After visiting five Canadian provinces and 47 states (28 of those with her current dog, Gundy), she says she can't retire (again!) until she hits all 50 states.
"I need to be busy and I love talking about Leader Dog and showing off my dog. I wouldn't last long with nothing to do," she says. Alaska, Montana and Rhode Island: she's on her way.