Base family raises Guiding Eyes for the Blind

  • Published
  • By Melissa Phillips
  • USAF retired
Heidi Luba believes it's important to raise her children with a strong civic-minded ethic to give back to the community.

What she didn't fully realize before she and her family embarked on a journey to raise and train a Guiding Eyes for the Blind guide dog is how much they would receive back in return.

"Fala is such a love," said Heidi, a homemaker who is married to Master Sgt. Michael Luba, 9th Airlift Squadron. "She keeps me company throughout the day."

A 2-year-old black labrador retriever guide candidate, Fala requires more than daily grub and a pat on the back.

Staying on track

In order to qualify as a puppy raiser for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, each member of the family has to be committed to training, which is a '24/7' proposition.

There are reports to be filled out and milestones to be reached throughout every phase of training.

"It is fun," said Brandon Luba, 18. "However at times, it is a little stressful. The whole training thing takes a lot of commitment."

Brandon, who was Fala's primary care giver, was in charge of making sure she stayed on track.

The family must walk the potential guide dog daily, rain or shine, to acclimate the dog to a variety of weather conditions. There are also daily sessions on proper puppy manners like sit, down, heel and stay.

Puppy college and field trips

Each dog and trainer also attends a kind of local puppy college with other potential recruits. At first, the sessions are once a week, then bi-weekly and finally once a month. On average, it takes a network of puppy raisers 14 - 16 months to train guide dog candidates.

Five days a week, puppy raisers are responsible to take their furry recruits on field trips so they don't get spooked in different situations, Brandon said.

Sudden noises and movement can frighten dogs, but guide dogs don't have that luxury. A spooked guide dog can be fatal to a visually-impaired person who depends on them to cross busy streets and navigate daily life without sight.

Family, community commitment

"It is truly a family and community effort to raise a dog," said Heidi. "We started working with Guiding Eyes for the Blind about three years ago. Brandon has grown a lot since then. He's learned discipline, commitment and how to care for something other than himself."

The Luba's eight-year-old daughter Kirsten brings a different aspect to the training. Puppies have to learn to behave around children, who naturally are drawn to pet them. However, the guide dog's job is to ignore distractions and stay tuned into the visually-impaired person's needs versus playing like a normal pet might.

The pay off

"It's well worth all the trouble and difficulty to know that you are going to help someone who needs it," Heidi said. "The biggest reward is to help a visually-impaired person live a good life and one that affords them more opportunities than they might have had."

James Case, a Dover Air Force Base switchboard operator for Delaware Industries for the Blind, was 40 when diabetes claimed his sight.

"I went with just a cane for five years ... I procrastinated," said Mr. Case. "After I got Davis, I thought, 'what a wasted five years.' Guide dogs give blind people the ability to get out and work, and socialize. It's especially important to a single person."

Although Mr. Case has his wife Holly to help him, he wanted to remain independent for most daily functions.

A horse enthusiast, he takes pride in the fact he can still feed and take care of his two horses with the help of Davis, a 9-year-old black Lab.

The base operator once got lost in his own backyard, but he said Davis was right there to lead him home. Prior to Davis, he would have struggled for who knows how long just to locate his own door.

"A blind person depends on the sounds the cane makes against the ground to get around," said Mr. Case. "If it's pouring rain, it muffles the sound. Snowy sidewalks are no good either. A dog is more on target."

A cane simply can't perform some functions for a visually-impaired person.

"I can't thank the puppy raisers enough," he said. "It's a wonderful gift, and it has got to be hard to raise a dog for a year and then give it up. It can't be expressed how wonderful an opportunity it is."

Making the cut

For the last three years, it's been Heidi's dream to raise a dog that would help a visually-impaired person live a better life. The Luba's had read personal accounts from several handlers on how much each guide dog impacted their owner's life. It is part of what kept them going and allowed them to give up Fala.
In early October, the Lubas said goodbye to Fala, who made the trip to New York for advanced guide training. In November, the Luba's found out that she didn't make the cut.
The drop-out rate for the program is high. Out of 500 dogs that are bred each year for the program, only half qualify as guides. The other half are considered for police work or adopted.

The Lubas were fortunate enough to adopt Fala, who is back home and still involved in the program. She now helps other puppy candidates by attending classes to socialize new puppies to get along with other four-legged creatures.

The Lubas also help out as puppy babysitters. They give other puppy raisers a break by taking on candidates for several weeks so the puppies are trained in different homes and learn how to accept commands from other people.

And, Fala is there every step of the way wagging her tail.

Breeding kindness

Since the program was founded in 1954, more than 6,500 dogs have graduated to become a lifeline to the visually-impaired. The Lubas are a part of that legacy.

"I feel very strongly that every student should do something like this in order to make a better America," Heidi said.

For now, the Lubas are happy to provide a good home to Fala and Cinder, the families other black Lab.

After all, there is always the future and another generation of guide dogs who need dedicated puppy raisers to help them get a paw up.