Lenny McHugh puts his life in the paws of a dog every day.

BY LESLIE RICHARDSON STAFF WRITER Published: Monday, April 6, 2009 4:12 AM EDT

Lenny McHugh puts his life in the paws of a dog every day.

McHugh, Pottsville, has a retinal degenerative disease known as retinitis pigmentosa that has left him legally blind since he was a child.

"Without a guide dog, I lose my independence," McHugh said Thursday.

McHugh is bonding with his third guide dog, a female black Labrador Retriever he met last week.

He lost his former guide dog, Micah, in February to cancer after only having him two years.

His first dog, Indy, retired after 10 years of service.

"Without him, I couldn't go and do anything without my wife taking me," McHugh said. "I couldn't even do simple things like walk for a haircut by myself." McHugh said he needs the guide dog to help steer him away from broken pavements, high curbs and traffic.

McHugh used a cane to navigate the city streets at first.

Following complications from neck surgery in 1995, McHugh suffered a loss of stamina and strength in his left side and experienced balance problems. Various agencies that provided guide dogs were unwilling to work with him because of these additional health problems.

A friend told McHugh about Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in Cassville, N.Y.

Freedom sent a trainer, Eric Loori, to McHugh in 1998 to provide two weeks of intensive in-home training specifically for McHugh's needs in Pottsville.

Providing guide dogs at no cost, Freedom Guide Dogs is a nonprofit organization that survives on donations to breed, raise and train the dogs.

On Thursday, Schuylkill Area Community Foundation gave the organization $1,000 on behalf of the Dr. Gail D. Mackey, VMD, DABVP Animal Fund.

This fund is one of 102 philanthropic funds of the foundation, a nonprofit that helps organize charitable giving by different donors in the county.

Established in 2001 by Mackey's family, earnings from the fund are expressly awarded to "individuals, organizations and/or municipalities to foster the bond between animals and humans so as to improve the quality of life." Mackey is practicing in Raleigh, N.C., but her family is from Klingerstown.

"I think what you do is wonderful," Eileen Kuperavage, Schuylkill Area Community Foundation executive director said Thursday. "And two wonderful people (McHugh and his wife, Karen) have the opportunity to work with you." Freedom Guide Dogs received $500 from the fund in 2007.

Meanwhile, Loori was back in Pottsville helping McHugh and his new guide adjust to each other.

"A guide dog is the navigator but the owner is the captain of the ship," Loori said Thursday. "Itís a 50/50 split of work. The blind person needs to know where he is going and the guide dog needs to help get him there." Loori said when a guide dog has its harness on, that is its uniform and it knows it is working.

McHugh stressed that it is important not to distract a service dog while it is working.

Behaviors such as saying its name, making eye contact, petting or snapping fingers can distract the dog, causing it to lose its concentration and the dog or McHugh could get hurt.

Once the dog is fully bonded with McHugh, both will be available to go to schools, churches or meetings to educate the public on service animals.

He is planning on speaking with students at Pine Grove Area Elementary School in a few weeks.

"After we are done speaking with the students, I will take the harness off and then they can pet him and talk to him," McHugh said.

Copyright © 2009 - The Republican & Herald

Lenny training with Toga

Photograph of Freedom Guide Dog trainer, Eric Loori, working with Lenny and Toga April 2, 2009
( Photo credit: Nick Meyer/Staff Photo/The Republican & Herald ) Watch the video file on YouTube

Guide dog user expresses thanks

Published: Thursday, April 16, 2009 4:13 AM EDT

To the Editor:

How does one go about thanking everyone for the gift of independent travel?

I will forever be grateful to Freedom Guide Dogs, Cassville, N.Y., for providing me with my third guide dog. There are so many others to whom I am thankful. I am very appreciative to Eileen Kuperavage and the staff of Schuylkill Area Community Foundation for the continuing support of Freedom Guide Dogs. A $1,000 grant on behalf of the Dr. Gail D. Mackey, VMD, DABVP Animal Fund was made to Freedom Guide Dogs. I am very thankful to the family for establishing the Dr. Gail D. Mackey, VMD, DABVP Animal Fund, from which Freedom has received a second grant.

I am also thankful to my friends and family members who have made donations over the past 11 years. Since Freedom receives no government contributions, they solely exist on the generosity of contributors.

There is another special group of people, that not only I, but any guide dog user is thankful for. These individuals are called puppy raisers. They take the dogs from a few weeks old and house break, establish rules like not to get on furniture and introduce them to their future working environment.

After having raised these puppies for a year or two they return them to the school for formal training to become a guide dog for a blind individual.

My new Freedom Guide Dog gives me the independence to travel on my own.

It will take a few months before we really become a great working team. I must learn to interpret every move that she makes, and she must learn what I expect of her. We are off to a great working relationship.

I also would like to thank Nick Meyer and Leslie Richardson of The Republican-Herald for their great coverage of the story about Freedom and training with my new guide dog. It is so important to educate the public not to talk to or try and pet a working guide dog.

All I can say is thank you to everyone who supports and is involved with the Freedom Guide Dog program.

Lenny McHugh


Copyright © 2009 - The Republican & Herald

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