- Associated Press - Friday, April 5, 2019

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Until her senior year, Melissa Padron, 27, had been using a white cane to navigate through life - tapping it in front of her as she attended classes at Texas A&M; in College Station.

“That was great and all, but I wanted an increase in my independence. I didn’t want to keep bumping along into things,” she said. “And then obviously there’s the companionship. You can talk to your dog when you can’t talk to, you know, a cane.”

The San Antonio Express-News reports six years ago, she applied for a dog through Guide Dogs for the Blind, a national nonprofit that breeds guide dogs and pairs them with visually impaired people for free. The San Antonio native was matched with Cameo, a sweet, young Labrador-golden retriever mix, who was been with her ever since.

Padron, with Cameo by her side, recently attended the group’s “Texas Fun Day.” The first time it’s been hosted in San Antonio, 160 puppies-in-training and about 500 people converged at Madison High School to share tricks on how to train soon-to-be guide dogs and run through puppy obstacle courses.

The gathering with people across the state, and even some from across the country, also reunited those who use a guide dog with the “puppy raisers” or volunteers who trained them.



Madison High School is one of only three high schools in Texas that has a Guide Dogs for the Blind club, said Janell McMullan, the school’s club leader and agriscience teacher.

About 36 students are voluntarily training 36 puppies that were bred in the nonprofit’s California location to become guide dogs, she said. The dogs are given to the volunteers - known as “puppy raisers” - at around 8 weeks old and returned to headquarters at 15 or 16 months old, ready for the next step in their training.

“College, if you will,” McMullan joked.

The dogs that are successful go on to be paired with a person in need, for free. Guide Dogs for the Blind takes care of the travel expenses for owners to pick up their dog, and for veterinarian costs - even after the dog has retired from its guide duties and becomes a regular house pet. (Guide dogs usually retire between 8 and 10 years old.)

Guiding the blind is considered one of the most - if not the most - sophisticated levels of service a dog can provide. In addition to obeying their owner, guide dogs must know when to override them to save their owner’s life.

“A guide dog has to make independent decisions and be able to say ‘No’ when given a command,” said Christine Benninger, CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. “We’re asking dogs to make an independent decision, and disobey.”

The nonprofit has its own geneticist, and partners with University of California-Davis to breed their dogs specifically for guide work. They only use labs, golden retrievers, and mixes between the two.

“We’re trying to get the best of nature and the best of nurture,” Benninger said.

Cameo has grown up with Padron. She dressed in cap and gown with her when she graduated. She was there when Padron got her job as assistant manager for the children’s program at the Lighthouse for the Blind. And she guided her when Padron was pregnant, and still guides Padron now with her two kids, who are 1 and 4 years old.

“She can read me so well, and I can read her,” Padron said.

This Christmas, her family sent out a family photo of them wearing red plaid Christmas pajamas - including Cameo, in her matching doggie PJ’s.

Padron said she’ll always remember the day when she let go of her white cane and held on instead to her new guide dog.

“The feeling I felt the second I held the handle and gave her the forward command, it was like flying,” Padron said. “Freeing.”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide