Dreams Coming True is a new Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
Welcome Tom Kowalski (& Dynamo!), creator of My Guide Dog’s Companion blog and ambassador for Guide Dogs for the Blind, to Dreams Coming True!
Tell us a little about yourself, Dynamo:
Both my parents are breeders for Guide Dogs for the Blind which meant that my career as a Guide was predetermined, if I could pass all the criteria. At the age of 10 weeks I was sent to Southern California to live with the Deter’s family for my puppy raising. It was a wonderful family and place to grow-up.
At the age of 16 months, I was sent back to GDB in San Rafael, California, where I started my formal training to become a Guide. After completing the regular training, I was put through additional training to be switched to the right side of my owner. (All Guide Dogs are trained on the left side of the handler.) What I did not know at the time is that Tom lost his left hand in an accident many years ago.
Many people say I am a very regal looking dog, and I think they are right. I am very confident in my abilities and am a very deep thinker and plotter. It is so easy to get a treat from Tom just by doing what I was trained to do. People always ask if they can pet me. When they do, they just say what a great dog I am, and of course, they are correct. It is in my genes.
Let me tell you about Tom.
Tom is a true creature of habit, (this may be the reason I found him a little difficult to train). He enjoys walking; we usually walk between 30 to 40 miles per week. He has 2 or 3 strips of bacon for breakfast every morning. I think he would enjoy a bowl of kibbles occasionally (it is the food of winners like me). Tom has a beautiful wife and 2 adult children. He adores them all.
Tom lost his vision to a rare eye disease in 2007. One other thing he loves to do is play golf, but he has not taken me to the course yet. I wish he would, I could use a good laugh.
How (and when) did you get connected with Guide Dogs for the Blind?
Tom: In 2010 we lost our beloved pet dog Chance, a miniature Australian Shepard.
It had been 3 years since having lost my sight. I had gone through mobility training and was very confident using a cane for assistance. I continually pressed my independence through my long walks, and using Buses and BART into the city and elsewhere. This led to many stressful situations along with several small accidents. Often tripping, running into objects and having several close calls with cars making right-hand turns through the pedestrian cross walk.
My wife, Andrea, was so concerned and constantly worried about me. In August 2011, without telling me, she applied for a Guide Dog with Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafel. She felt that I would be much safer and could use the companionship. She was so correct. Once I understood that, and also understood that it relieves a lot of her fears, I agreed to move forward.
Did you have any hesitations or reluctance about getting a service dog?
Tom: Once I knew it would relieve some of the worries my wife had for me on my travels, I was committed to move forward, never knowing the true gift I was going to receive.
Can you share a little about the process of getting a service dog and what the transition was like for you?
Tom: The application process was pretty straight forward.
You have to have had Mobility Training and have used a cane for at least two years.
You need a doctor’s evaluation confirming your visual impairment and the degree of loss of sight. GDB then sends out a person to do an in home evaluation confirming your need for a dog and evaluating your pace and gate when you walk. They determine the size of dog you will need based upon your height.
When the evaluator left that October day, He said he would recommend that I receive a dog, but that the admissions committee makes the final decision.
Six weeks later I received a letter from the committee turning down my application. They stated that I was too active (walking too much) and that I was not blind enough. I was truly disappointed. I immediately appealed, focusing on their two objections. Stating that I would never put a dog in harm’s way and would follow the recommendation of the committee as to how much exercise the dog should or could have. I also stated that I do have some sight (I see shadows) but the letter from the Nero ophthalmologist from UCSF and UCLA stated that I was legally blind due to a rare eye disease called NAION.
Within 2 days of my appeal letter, I received the original denial letter but with a date corresponding with the appeal letter. At that point I just walked away thinking God just did not have this in his plan for me. A year went by and the men in my Wednesday morning Bible study kept encouraging me to not give up. I was not in the frame of mind to fight for a dog.
Then one day I received the quarterly magazine from GDB. The front cover GDB was promoting the accomplishment of one of their graduates and his dog. The two of them had hiked the Pacific Rim, going 20 miles a day for many months.
This really ticked me off, so I called the head of admissions at GDB and went over the two reasons I was denied a dog. Walking too much and having too much vision. I pointed out the Front page article in their magazine as well as letting them know that my vision had decreased, but also in their mission statement it says to assist the visually impaired not just the totally blind.
She agreed to reevaluate my situation and admissions, within 2 weeks I was accepted and put on the waiting list. It then took about another six to seven months to find the correct dog for me and then retrain him to the right side. January 14th, 2014 I moved to the San Rafel Campus to start my two-week training.
Have there been any unexpected surprises? If so, what?
Tom: I am amazed how intelligent and insightful Dynamo is. As I was taught, I am the navigator and Dynamo is the pilot. Every time he slows down or slightly moves to the right or left it is to make me aware of an obstacle he is helping me to avoid. He recognizes overhead objects that I may hit, he will stop and allow me to reach out and feel for the object. (i.e. tree branches).
I can go into a room with twenty chairs that are all filled but one; if I say “chair” he will find the empty chair. When leaving a room , I’ll give the command “door,” and he takes me to the door we entered through.
I was also taken back by how positive of a learning experience it was on the campus at GDB. The whole staff from trainers, supervisors, chefs, nurses, admissions and veterinary staff all were positive and motivating. No problem was too great. They continually, for the two weeks I was there, gave positive reinforcement. Always pointing out the things I did correctly and not allowing you to dwell on those things you did incorrectly. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
As I said in my graduation speech, “Next to my marriage to Andrea and the birth of our two children, Dynamo and these past two weeks was the best gift I have ever received”.
What have you learned and how has your life changed since?
Tom: I found out that there were so many people wanting this for me; family, friends and acquaintances. When it looked like I might not get a dog, I was told a person who knows me (he has remained anonymous) went to a representative of GDB and said, “How big of a check do I need to write to insure that he gets a dog”. The representative told him it does not work that way—you can’t buy your way in. Also, a couple in the Mid-West had read my blog when I was in training. The day before my graduation they donated $67,000.00 to GDR to sponsor Dynamo and myself. This couple has done this several times.
After receiving this gift from GDB, I feel compelled to repay this not for profit organization. I now have the responsibility to be the best ambassador for the GDB Family of Breeders, Puppy Raisers and the Guide Dog Facility employees and volunteers that I can be. This will be a life-long commitment.
What inspired you to start your blog, My Guide Dog’s Companion?
Tom: So many people were behind me that I wanted to share the journey with them. I would not consider myself a very good writer, but I thought it was important that these friends and family get to know Dynamo. It was important to show how professional he is and, at the same time, loving. The blog seemed to get a life of its own as Dynamo became the voice of the adventure. I found it very therapeutic at the end of some long exhausting days to look back through his eye’s and laugh at myself. Hopefully, people also got some good laughs in the read.
What advice do you have for others thinking about getting a guide dog?
Tom: This is a 24/7 commitment for the life of your dog. Be prepared to be the GDB Ambassador. People are extremely inquisitive to the point of rudeness at times. I always take these opportunities to explain and teach the proper protocol for approaching a blind person with a Guide. The adventures keep coming and the companionship is the best. The bond becomes stronger every day.
What are some Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to approaching a service dog?
- Guide Dogs are for the blind or visually impaired only.
- Guide Dog trainers must be state certified and licensed trainers. This is a three-step process over three years.
- Certified Guide Dogs enjoy all the same privileges as we do. They cannot be discriminated against. This cannot be said for service dogs.
- I can only speak for a Guide Dog.
- If you see a blind person and they are working with their Guide. (This would be when the dog is harnessed and walking) do not stop or interrupt them, both the dog and handler need to stay focused on the task at hand.
- If you see a blind person and their guide (still in harness) and they are sitting or resting, this would be the proper time to approach the handler. If you ask to pet the guide, the handler will ask you to wait while he puts the dog in the proper position.
- There are times that the handler may say no. This would be because he wants to keep the dog focused.
- Never give food or water to a Guide without the handler’s permission.
- Learning these protocols can be a great experience for everyone.
How does Guide Dogs for the Blind create community?
Tom: GDB has one mission, To provide dogs to assist the blind and visually impaired.
This starts with the breeding, birthing, puppy raising, formal training and training for the handler. This is all done in house except the puppy raising.
All Guide Dogs receives veterinarian care for life.
There are manned phone lines for Alumni who may have questions or issues with their guide.
There are clubs for breeders and puppy raisers, as well as alumni. These clubs meet weekly and provide up-to-date information as well as setting up field trips for raisers and their dogs.
All this is done with absolutely no cost to the recipient of a Guide Dog.
There are two facilities in California and Oregon with full-paid staff and 1,200 volunteers, all with their eye on the same prize to help their fellow human beings. Every year each campus hosts a fun day to show appreciation to all volunteers and alumni. This year in San Rafel 1,400 people and 800 dogs where there to enjoy the festivities, a great lunch, and comradery.
Would you recommend getting a guide dog to others who are visually impaired?
Tom: Yes, if they are ready for the commitment. Looking back, the two-year wait really made me prepare and think deeply as too whether I was committed. Dynamo is my first Guide. My five other classmates at GDB training were all on their third, fourth or even fifth dog. They all told me how this would change my life in such a positive way and they were right.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Dynamo: I was sad when I had to leave my puppy raisers, but soon understood how fortunate for me, to be able to fullfill that which I was bred for and trained so hard to be.
I am proud to go to the weekly Breeders and Puppy Raisers meeting to show those puppies how a professional acts. In addition, the handlers get to see the results of their unselfish act of kindness, to raise a puppy only to give it away. My life with Tom is one of excitement, travel and companionship. We enjoy each day, and look forward to a life together. Tom is still a work in progress, but he continues to improve.
[Tweet “What’s it like having & being a Guide Dog? Find out from Tom & Dynamo here:”]
Tom & Dynamo are walking 200 miles to raise funds for the breeders program for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The breeders and puppy raisers are volunteers and all costs to raise the puppy, except medical, are paid for by them. Tom’s goal is to raise $2,000 to cover the yearly rental fee for the facility where the San Ramon Valley Puppy Raisers Club meets and show his thanks for their unselfish acts of kindness.
Dynamo and Tom are training for the Primo’s Half Marathon Run/Walk for Education which takes place on October 12, 2014. Dynamo and Tom will be walking 200 miles over the next month to prepare for the half marathon. If you would like to pledge $10 to support GDB, please send a check to:
Guide Dogs for the Blind
236B Canyon Woods Way
San Ramon, CA 94582
In the memo area please put Club# 11-01