Guiding light

. October 23, 2012.
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For Melissa Weaver, success is saying goodbye.

That’s because Weaver, an animal trainer at Findlay Animal Care Center, recently finished training her first guide dog for children. She knew her job was done when she traveled to Cleveland recently to deliver Logan, a four year old male black lab, to a 10-year-old girl who will take Logan to school with her.

“So far so good,” says Weaver, who spent about two weeks working with Logan’s new family at their home. “For the first couple days it’s a rollercoaster because everyone is trying to fit in with each other. But within a couple weeks everything settles down.”

Logan is the first of hopefully many dogs Weaver will train through Lodestar: Guiding Angels for the Blind, organized last year. What’s different about Logan is that he was specifically trained to work with sight-impaired children, a group who only recently began to use guide dogs.

In Ohio there are about 1,500 legally blind school-aged children, Weaver says, with about 250 of them living in Northwest Ohio. Dogs have long been used by blind adults, but only recently have been considered for children over the age of 10. Weaver says that at age 10 most children are able to care for a dog independently, an important part of a partnership that can last up to 10 years.

A perfect fit

It’s an idea Weaver first learned about after graduating from college with degrees in zoology and psychology. She wanted to work with animals, and her Google search landed on guide dog pages. It seemed like the perfect marriage of working with animals and helping people. Since then, she has worked for several accredited guide dog training schools, including a three-year apprenticeship in Michigan and a stint in England.

“I love being able to take that dog and give him to someone who is blind or visually impaired, and see that person’s confidence boosted,” says Weaver, an Ottawa native. “It’s a win-win. You go home feeling pretty good at the end of the day.”

Lodestar is just beginning, and right now Weaver is volunteering her services. While the dogs are provided free of charge to families, about $15,000 goes into each dog’s training and health care. As funds are raised, Weaver hopes to place four or five dogs a year.

Finding a home

Weaver found Logan through a rescue organization, and plans to get future dogs through lab and golden retriever rescue organizations. Those breeds are family-friendly, she says, and the slightly older dogs are a good fit for children because they are generally calmer.

Logan lived with Weaver and her own dog, a husky named Cricket, while he trained for about six months. Training included learning basic skills such as stopping at curbs, obstacle avoidance and watching for traffic. Other skills specific to children include navigating busy school hallways and staying focused while around other children. Logan spent time at a few area schools as part of his training.

Another, very important part of his training was working with Joel Starkey, an 11 year old visually impaired Findlay boy. Logan and Joel spent a few hours walking around downtown Findlay this summer as a “final exam” of sorts for Logan. While Joel’s family is not yet ready to commit to a guide dog, it was a positive experience.

“I think it’s very cool to get a chance to work with that dog,” says Joel. “That dog did a very good job helping me around the street and stuff. I’m thinking I might want to get a dog sometime when I’m older.”

And now Logan, who became part of Weaver’s family, has a full time job. It was bittersweet to say goodbye, Weaver says.

“I will miss him,” says Weaver. “I would still love to see him but I had the benefit of seeing him working with a family so you know that’s where he is supposed to be.”