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Leader dog finds its way back to Iola

Seeing the results of one’s labor always makes the job more worth the effort.

This was especially true when Annie Wierzchowski met Greg Wehby for the first time.

The common bond was their love for Riley.

Wierzchowski raised Riley as a puppy, and Wehby depends on the grown dog to be his eyes.

“Though he still remembers me and my family, it is clear to see that Riley has made a fabulous transition from being my puppy to being Greg’s devoted guide and friend,” Wierzchowski said. “It is a wonderful thing to me as a puppy raiser to see the puppy I’ve spent almost an entire year to raise working so well and happily for Greg.”

Wehby and Riley recently visited Iola to express their appreciation to the people who helped sponsor their puppy raiser. Most puppy raisers never have the chance to meet the person who becomes the partner of one of their puppies.

Even more rare is that Wehby lost his sight the same day Riley was born.

They were united about six months ago through Leader Dogs for the Blind.

“Using Riley to help me is how I have to get around now,” Wehby said. “I can’t see where I’m going, so I have to trust him. We’re still learning a few things.”

The guide dog helps its handler cross streets, ride buses, find doors, etc. It takes about a year for a leader dog and its handler to totally trust each other.

“Before he got Riley, Greg was housebound,” his wife, Diane, said. “Now he can have his life back and be independent.”

Having Riley allows Wehby to attend Aquanies College in Michigan. They ride the bus, and Riley is learning how to find each classroom.

There is a special bond between a service dog and its owner.

“I take care of him and he takes care of me,” Wehby said.

Whenever Riley is wearing his harness, he is working and should not be distracted. It’s best to never approach a leader dog unless the handler grants permission.

Part of Riley’s education is learning “trained disobedience,” to keep himself and his owner from harm.

“‘Forward’ is always a request, not a demand, for a guide dog,” Wehby said. “It’s up to Riley to know that it’s safe to (move forward). He is actually looking for something that I might miss.”

Wehby was born with a congenital disease that caused him to eventually lose his sight. At age 3, he developed cataracts. Twenty years ago, he lost sight in his right eye.

He worked as a respiratory therapist before becoming totally blind two years ago. With a guide dog, he hopes to finish college and begin a new career.

“There are now more and more ways for a blind person to be productive,” Wehby said. “The tools are there and they are becoming more accessible.”

He is learning to use adaptive software to be able to use a computer as easily as a sighted person.

“Riley helps a lot in me feeling like I’m part of society,” Wehby said.

Raising puppies

Wierzchowski, 17, lives near Iola and has raised four puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind, which is headquartered in Rochester Hills, Mich. She has participated in the program since age 12.

Riley was the third puppy Wierzchowski raised. She remembers each of them: Bandit, Buddy, Riley and Liberty.

Bandit is now a guide dog in Argentina, Buddy is retired and living in Canada because he did not quite match-up as a guide dog, and Liberty was returned in February to begin training as a guide dog.

Upon receiving a new puppy, Wierzchowski is required to sign a contract.

Most importantly, she needs to promise never to let the dog off its leash unless it is in a confined area. This is because Leader Dogs for the Blind has already invested so much money and time into each puppy in the hopes that it will eventually become a service dog.

Meeting a new puppy is “a very fun time and a very emotional time,” Wierzchowski told the students at Iola-Scandinavia Elementary School during a March 20 program.

The young puppy is required to wear a kerchief on its neck, designating it as a Leader Dog in Training.

“The first lesson is to teach the puppy not to chew what I put on him,” Wierzchowski said.

She noted the puppy must be immediately house trained, plus begin to learn manners and commands.

“Sometimes they don’t even know they are learning, but they are,” she said. “It is a 24-7 job.”

The puppy trainer takes the puppy to stores, restaurants, parks and other public places so it learns how to behave properly.

As the puppy gets older, it is taken to airports, hotels, pools, fire stations and introduced to different terrain (rocks, hills, etc.).

Giving up the dog is the hardest part, Wierzchowski admits. “We get attached,” she said, “but these dogs are not yours.”

She said, “Though giving back each puppy to Leader Dogs was not easy emotionally, it feels great to know that they are going on to do what they were bred and raised for – helping make someone else’s life easier.”

Wierzchowski encourages other young people to volunteer for community service.

“I hope other young people will think of something they like to do and see how they can use their skills to help others,” she said.

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