Close up photo of someone hand stamping part of a leather harness with numbers, using a metal tool

By Steve Williams

Steve Williams works in the tack shop with a hammer and other tools to assemble a leather harness
Steve works in the tack shop on Leader Dog’s campus.

After working as an orthotist (a person who makes custom orthopedic devices) for 39 years, my wife and I closed our family business in 2015. Shortly after retiring I started volunteering in the tack room. I was very excited to be part of Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB) since I grew up nearby and had a family connection.

My daughter, Ana Williams, worked for several years as a guide dog mobility instructor for English and Spanish-speaking clients. While she worked at LDB, my wife and I had an opportunity to take a tour of the facility. I saw my retirement future as soon as we stepped into the tack shop. This is where the tack shop volunteers assist with assembling and repairing leather harnesses and tie-downs for the dogs. Some of the harnesses are also customized to accommodate a dog or handler’s physical stature. When I trained many years ago to become an orthotist, most of the devices were made from leather and metal. Although technology has changed over the years to incorporate more sophisticated materials, I always loved using my old school leather work skills.

Volunteer Brent works on assembling a harness in the tack shop
Volunteer Brent works on leather in the tack shop.

The steps to make a harness have evolved since the tack shop opened many years ago and we routinely try to improve on little details to perfect the finished product. I really like to study the old harnesses that clients return to inspect for wear issues that might affect the durability or comfort of the harnesses. Feedback from the vet clinic and instructors also helps us improve the design. A few years ago, a vet technician mentioned that the copper rivets on the side of the harness were rubbing against a dog’s torso. We knew that if the rivets were irritating one dog, there was potential that several dogs were encountering the same issue. We started rounding the top of the rivets so there wouldn’t be any edges to aggravate the dog’s skin. We rely on this sort of feedback and teamwork to make the equipment comfortable since the dogs can’t tell us how they are feeling.

I especially love using our vintage sewing machine that was donated by the Hazel Park horse racetrack’s tack shop. Like the tack room volunteer crew, it is a little finicky and temperamental but when it’s time to go to work it does a marvelous job. The volunteer crew consists of myself, Brent Fecteau, Rob Walker and John Bastion. We enjoy a unique camaraderie and I couldn’t have hoped to share my retirement time with a nicer group of people. We gab like a bunch of old hens while we produce about 300 harnesses each year. I feel so lucky to be able to spend my retirement doing what I love. My wife, Mary, feels similarly blessed and volunteers as a client activity assistant with the Spanish-speaking clients and as a canine center receptionist. I sincerely hope that all retirees are as fortunate as we are to find a place like LDB to use their talents.

This orientation is a great opportunity for people who would like to know more about volunteering to raise a Leader Dog puppy.

You will learn how raising a puppy works, what you’ll do as a raiser, and the resources and support you’ll receive from Leader Dog to help you raise a puppy that’s ready to be trained as a guide dog.

When: Monday, July 22 from 6–8 p.m.
Where: Leader Dogs for the Blind campus, 1039 W. Rochester Road, Rochester Hills, MI 48307
Go into the building closest to Rochester Road (by the glass revolving door).

Please contact Laura Fisher at 248-218-6422 or by July 15 to get your name on the attendee list.

Sarah sits smiling at the camera in front of a beige wall. She is sitting next to a yellow lab

I never knew how much Leader Dogs for the Blind would mean to me or how invested I would become when I began volunteering in August 2007. I started by coming in one day a week but I quickly realized how much I loved being here. I kept adding days to my schedule and I currently volunteer four days a week. I split my time between canine center receptionist and canine support assistant. I look forward to coming in each and every day because it puts a smile on my face. It really makes me feel good to help other people and be a service to the community.

The canine center receptionist role is extremely rewarding. I have always loved being around dogs and I enjoy administrative work so this was the perfect fit for me. I answer incoming calls and talk to some amazing people. I enjoy greeting all the visitors, puppy raisers, volunteers and employees when they come into the canine center. I have gotten to know a lot of people and I value all the friendships I have made over the years. My favorite part is interacting with others and how I feel when I have helped someone either in person or over the phone.

There are so many things I enjoy about this volunteer role, but one of my absolute favorite things is witnessing career changed dogs go to their new home. It is especially fun to see puppy raisers come in to pick up their dog after being career changed. The puppy raisers simply amaze me with how much work they put into raising their puppies. The dogs are so excited to be reunited with their raisers!

I am really impressed with the organization and how much time and training is required to prepare a dog to become a Leader Dog for a client. As a canine support assistant, I get to spend one-on-one time with the dogs in training. I love being able to sit with the dogs, give them love and interact with them. I feel that the dogs work hard and it brightens their day and makes them feel special to receive individual attention. It is also rewarding to be a part of these dogs’ lives knowing that they could potentially be guiding a person who is visually impaired or blind in the future.

Volunteering at LDB these past 12 years has been such an amazing experience. I am so grateful to be part of such a wonderful organization that provides their services free of charge. I love spending a large part of my week at LDB and knowing it is helping clients gain independence.

This orientation is a great opportunity for people who would like to know more about volunteering to raise a Leader Dog puppy. You’ll learn about how raising a puppy for Leader Dog works and meet just a few of the people who help support the puppy raising adventure.

Saturday, May 11 from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.

1039 W. Rochester Road, Rochester Hills, MI 48307

Go into the building closest to Rochester Road (by the glass revolving door).

Please RSVP by May 6 to Laura Fisher at 248-218-6422 or to get your name on the attendee list.