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Paynesville Press - August 17, 2005

Blind retiree gains independence with
leader dog

By Michael Jacobson

If you see Jerry Kennedy walking his dog Dakota in downtown Paynesville, don't be tempted to pet the friendly black lab. She's working, and even wears a sign saying: "Do Not Pet Me. I'm Working."

Dakota is a leader dog for Jerry, who lost his vision in February 2003. Jerry went to the Leader Dog School for the Blind in Rochester, Mich., for a month this spring. He arrived at the school on Sunday, April 10, and stayed until Thursday, May 5.

The school, founded by Lions Club members in 1939, has graduated 13,000 person/dog teams. Each dog, which has been trained since being a puppy, is worth $35,000.

Dakota Jerry and his classmates spent three days getting introduced before being assigned a dog. "On Wednesday, and from that day on, you went everywhere with your dog," he explained.

Jerry Kennedy went to Michigan this spring to train with his black lab leader dog, Dakota.

Pupils had to learn to walk straight, to hold their dog's harness relaxed, to start giving verbal commands to their dog (such as "Find the curb" in order to cross a street, and to bond with their dog. They were even instructed to work the leash so the dog got to know your smell, said Jerry.

Unfortunately, Jerry's first dog Levi, a three-year-old male golden lab, had a tendency to stray. Levi liked to chase squirrels, while Jerry did not. In addition to wanting to run, Levi ran Jerry into parking meters and led him over a two-foot drop in the first week, where Jerry landed on his chest and ended up in the hospital.

Jerry thought about quitting after his fall, but he noticed immediate improvement with Dakota, who despite being 18-months-old was more mature and obedient than Levi. Dakota, a female black lab/shepherd mix, had been trained since six weeks of age.

"That's when they brought Dakota. I was a little behind the eight ball because I was a week behind the other students. Plus, a little paranoid from my accident," said Jerry.

For training, they took the pupils and their dogs and made them walk around Rochester, in Detroit, and even on the campus at Michigan St. "We'd just start walking the streets," said Jerry. "You had to remember where you were. Some days we'd walk five or six miles."

At Michigan St., they had to navigate the grounds when students flooded the square during a class break. And they went to malls to learn to climb stairs, ride escalators and elevators, and to go through revolving doors.

Jerry also made lots of good friends during his month at school: blind friends who could relate to his loss of vision. Sometimes, Jerry said, in Paynesville it's easy to feel "like the only blind person in the world."

jerry Jerry, 64, who retired in Paynes-ville ten years ago with his wife Marlene, had a blood surge during back surgery on Feb. 6, 2003, causing damage to both his optic nerves. Formerly with 20/20 vision, he hasn't seen since, he said.

Jerry Kennedy - who lost his eyesight due to a stroke in February 2003 - pets his leader dog Dakota, whom Kennedy received this spring to help him get around his property and around town.

"I had a hard time at first," admitted Jerry, whose plight was complicated at first because he was not only blind but was inactive following his back surgery.

After losing his sight, he became dependent on Marlene and other family members and friends. Jerry and Marlene had good cries every week, they said.

"You keep hoping and hoping," said Marlene. But after six months, "you have to go on," said Jerry, who can sometimes see bright colors.

Through the Minnesota Society of the Blind, Jerry got occupational therapy, including hints like putting buttons on the washer machine so he can feel where to turn the settings. Instead of lamenting in his blindness, his new focus became "how do we deal with it on a daily basis."

Part of his training was to walk with a blindfold, which forced him to use senses other than sight. At first, he was trying so hard to see, squinting to make out where he was headed, that he was constantly off balance, which made walking difficult. He had to learn to pay attention to his other senses - to the sense of feel in his feet, for instance, instead of vision - while walking.

His trainer from the Minnesota Society of the Blind was demanding said Jerry, but she helped him immensely. Jerry also learned how to walk with the use of a cane, a prerequisite to having a leader dog.

In the late spring/early summer of 2004, local Lions Club members Bill Spooner and John Nett came to the Kennedy's house and provided information about the Leader Dog School for the Blind and brought an application for Jerry. After applying, Jerry had to show his proficiency with a walking cane. If you can't get around with a cane, you won't be able to get around with a dog, Jerry explained.

Lions Clubs have long made aiding the blind and improving sight as a goal, and their school in Michigan is the closest to Minnesota. Jerry was a little scared to go to the leader dog school because he was not sure if he would succeed. But, having had horses for most of his life, he figured, "I was always good with animals. I thought I'd give it a try."

Though Jerry had to wait nearly a year to go to the leader dog school, "It didn't cost us a penny," Marlene.

The best way to get around is still a sighted person, said Jerry, since two humans can communicate verbally. But, this also makes you dependent on someone else. (In addition to his family, friend Lorie Meagher has gone walking with Jerry most mornings for the past two years.)

"For Jerry, the dog is independence," said Marlene. "If he wants to go for a walk, he can go."

"She gives me so much more confidence," said Jerry of Dakota. "I can go downtown. I'm teaching her the shops."

Without sight, you feel defenseless, added Jerry, who believes that Dakota would try to protect him.

"They like the (term) 'leader dog' because that's really what the dog does. It leads," said Jerry, in explaining that leaders dogs are trained to do more than just see (which is the connotation of the phrase seeing-eye dogs).

It should take six months to a year to fully train and bond with Dakota. "I expose her a little bit each day. You don't want to throw too much at her. She's still young," said Jerry. "Like me, she's very new at this."

For instance, when crossing a street, Jerry has to know where they are going and needs to trust Dakota to go when the traffic is clear. "That's how much you have to trust the dog," he said.

Dakota is learning commands - Find the door! Find the curb! Follow Marlene! - and learning her new environment like where is the barn, where is the house, and where is downtown. Jerry still carries a collapsible cane as a backup.

Though Dakota gets lots of love and care, she's not spoiled. She has a strict diet for long life, since her training makes her so valuable. If Jerry ever needs a new dog, he will have to go back to leader dog school, though previous graduates get some special treatment.

Dakota has deepened Jerry's positive outlook on life. "The only thing I can't do is I can't see," he said. "I'm still the same person. I just can't see."

Jerry's good humor made things easier for the whole family during his medical troubles, said daughter Jessica Hunt. It has taken hard work to regain part of his independence, she added.

Both Jerry and Marlene are very appreciative of all the help and support they have received from the community over the past two and a half years.

Jerry appreciates visits, said Marlene. To be sure he knows who you are, though, you should just put your hand on his shoulder and say your name, such as "This is John."

"It's good to see you" is not wrong or impolite to say, added Jerry. Heck, he thinks it would be nice to see you.

"I'm not a person to sit down and give up," said Jerry. "My next thing is Braille." He intends to learn just the basics of Braille, enough to be able to read signs in buildings, directions, etc. He doesn't feel he needs to become fluent enough to read a novel or book.

Jerry is confident that Dakota likes him because she shows her affection constantly. And the feeling is mutual. "She's been a Godsend," he said. "I love her."

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