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Powers: Working dogs: Lives depend on them

Robert Torrance and Carrie Hobbs observe Mandy Burton and Nezzie and encourage the use of hand signals. (Christy Powers/Courtesy)

Robert Torrance and Carrie Hobbs observe Mandy Burton and Nezzie and encourage the use of hand signals. (Christy Powers/Courtesy)

Imagine walking beside your dog when suddenly she is attacked by a loose or unmanaged dog.

Now imagine that you are totally blind - walking along with your dog, depending on her to keep you safe — and she is attacked.

Thankfully, I have good vision, but when I see an out-of-control dog while walking with my two, I panic, grab my Spray Shield and move out of the way. It is totally inconceivable to imagine this situation without being able to see it coming.

Mandy Burton found herself in this situation way too many times. Responding to my column about out-of-control dogs, her friend Rhonda Hammack related the profound and damaging effects these dog attacks have had on Mandy’s guide dog, Nezzie, and with Nezzie’s ability to do her job, which is to keep Mandy safe.

Mandy has had a guide dog for 26 years. Nezzie is her fourth. She experienced dog attacks only once with each of her previous dogs. With Nezzie, she experienced eight attacks in one week.

“It makes me nauseated to think of Nezzie having to retire early, having to start over. She has saved my life many times.” Mandy says.

Mandy is totally bonded with Nezzie and was most worried she would not be able to depend on her with her life as she so desperately needed and was accustomed to doing. She contacted Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind in Phoenix where Nezzie was raised and trained. Robert Torrance, trainer, and Carrie Hobbs, puppy coordinator and kennel manager, made a trip to Prescott for an evaluation.

Meeting at the library, the pair knew that Nezzie needed some retraining and confidence rebuilding. They followed and observed as Nezzie led Mandy among the people in the library, into the elevator and walking down stairs. They then proceeded over to the square where the real distractions abound. Fortunately, they determined that Nezzie could continue with her job. Some handling tips were explained and performed to help Mandy rebuild Nezzie’s confidence in relation to working around other dogs. Mandy needed to re-convince Nezzie that she trusted her, and Nezzie needed to convince Mandy that she could be trusted. This is a work in progress.

The advice Torrance and Hobbs have for everyone: “If you see a person with a guide dog, it is acceptable to communicate with the person but not the dog. Keep your dog away. There should be absolutely no contact whatsoever with your dog.”

Another problem, says Mandy, “is when the internet started selling fake service dog vests; it changed my life. People should not take advantage of the service dog industry.”

Guide dogs originated in 1922, after World War I. German shepherds were used originally because of their loyalty, intelligence, smooth gate and their workhorse mentality. Labs are also very popular. Once placed, a dog will spend eight to 10 years with that person. Frequently, the retired dog will stay on in that household as a pet, as is the case with Mandy’s prior guide dog.

At home, when the harness is off, Nezzie is a normal pup, playing with her buddy and acting like a dog.

It is vitally important to carefully match the dog with the person. Lifestyle, speed of moving around and temperament must be considered.

Mandy is not your normal blind woman. While living in California, she was a fitness trainer and her guide dog brought her safely through heavy traffic and congestion. Now she resides in Prescott Valley and operates “Blind Faith Bakery” (blindfaithbakery.com), where she produces wonderful candy and cookies that she sells at farmers markets and special events.

Mandy summarizes: “If people know how to interact with a guide dog, whether or not they have a dog, it will make a difference in my life and how I am able to travel safely.”

If all dogs were trained and well-behaved and under control, there would not be a problem for teams like Mandy and Nezzie.

Christy Powers is a freelance writer whose passion is studying and writing about pet health, nutrition and training. She can be reached at cpowerspak@gmail.com.

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