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Volume XVII, Issue 4 - January 22 - January 28, 2009
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GPS Goes to the Dogs

How one Owings woman found independence
through turn-by-turn directions

by Diana Beechener

Two semi-trucks barrel past 48-year-old Pamela Yaney as she ambles along the shoulder of Route 2 just south of the Anne Arundel-Calvert line, sending gusts of frigid air and exhaust fumes whirling around the visually impaired woman. Her leader dog, an 18-month-old puppy named Vista, remains focused forward, helping Yaney pick her way around broken beer bottles and fragments of animal skeletons along the stretch of blacktop.

Yaney walks with confidence: She trusts Vista to keep her safe and new technology to keep her on the right path.

“Approaching Mt. Harmony Road,” alerts a mechanized voice from Yaney’s newest guide, HumanWare’s Trekker Breeze, a Global Positioning System designed for people with impaired vision.

“It’s very similar to a GPS unit for all of you sighted people,” says Yaney of the remote control-sized device. “It makes me and other blind persons more independent. We won’t have to hunt around for people to read us street names.”

From Dogs to GPS

The Breeze — and its deluxe counterpart, the Trekker — are part of a revolutionary mobility program from Michigan’s Leader Dogs for the Blind (

“The way dog guides have been trained hasn’t changed that much in 80 years. This is a totally different way to train people,” says Rod Haneline, Leader Dogs’ COO.

Founded by members of the Detroit Lions Club in 1939, Leader Dogs has provided free training, boarding and travel to thousands of visually impaired, deaf and deaf-blind students hoping to work with dogs. This is no small feat, for the training for each leader dog can cost up to $38,000.

In spite of the cost, service animals are still a popular choice among the visually impaired.

“It makes a difference socially: People’s reaction to a cane is to get out of the way. If people see a guide dog, they might come over and speak to you,” says Haneline.

Yaney, who overcomes hearing, visual and mobility impairments as a result of congenital rubella syndrome — her mother contracted measles in the first trimester of pregnancy — finds other benefits to a four-legged guide.

“I like the companionship. I like to be able to get out more,” Yaney says. “A dog will take me around things a cane won’t. Vista will stop me if she hears something that I may not hear.”

Yaney, who got her first leader dog at the age of 21, is part of Leader Dogs’ testing group, incorporating Trekkers with mobility training. The Group has taken to calling the Trekker program GPS Goes to the Dogs.

Leader Dogs found that even with dog guides, many visually impaired people don’t feel comfortable traveling in unfamiliar areas.

Leader Dogs director of program services Harold Abraham explains the predicament:

“If you’re driving, and you don’t know where you are, you’d obey traffic laws and read the street signs,” Abraham says. “If we took away your street signs, you’d still drive safely, but you’d have a lot of anxiety about where you were going.”

“The primary thing that we’re trying to do with the Breeze is relieve the anxiety of travel,” says Haneline. Leader Dogs trains students to cope with stressful travel scenarios.

“We take them to a place and make them avoid obstacles,” says Abraham, describing the training. “They can get spun around trying to avoid things. Then, they have to get their bearings again [using the Trekkers].”

Leader Dogs believes that incorporating Trekker technology into dog guide training will encourage the visually impaired to venture out.

“It is a true paradigm shift to incorporate GPS with dog guide travel,” Abraham says. “It’s going to change the way people travel.”

Yaney is confirming that belief.

Road Blocks

In Owings, Yaney braves the cold as often as she can to test her Breeze.

“Right now,” Yaney says, “the Trekker is telling me the name of the road we’re coming up on.”

But the Trekker didn’t inform Yaney that a four-foot puddle of drainage water had flooded the shoulder of the road. That’s Vista’s job. Taking a moment to sniff and consider, Vista flicked her tail and turned Yaney around, heading home. Today was too cold for wading.

With the Breeze attached to her side and Vista finding a safe path, Yaney is eager to explore. She takes her Breeze with her wherever she goes because, “I want to know what the city is like. I want to learn the names of the streets.”

The alert system on the Breeze also enables Yaney to help drivers. She can tell a street name or give turn-by-turn directions.

Yaney’s problem now is finding a safer place to explore.

“You don’t have a lot of bus transportation here [in the Owings part of Calvert County], which is kind of sad,” says Yaney, who moved here from Ashville, North Carolina, and laments the rarity of public and disabled transportation.

For people with visual impairments, finding a bus is only the first transportation obstacle.

“That’s the nice thing about Breeze, because a lot of bus drivers do not mention the names of the major routes,” Yaney says. “We as blind individuals can take the Breeze with us and use the headphone or the mike to listen to the names of the streets along the route and say to the driver, this is where I’d like to get off please. I love the Trekker. I love it a lot.”

Though helping pave the way for new traveling independence, a Trekker system is an investment some people with visual impairments can’t afford.

Costing $1,740, the Trekker is the preferred system at Leader Dogs. With 39 keys and a complex menu system, the deluxe model is often likened to a BlackBerry.

“The Trekker would have much more global use for a person doing more travel. The Breeze would be more local in use,” Abraham says. Even the Trekker Breeze, which retails for $940, is a pricey investment for a piece of technology still in pilot stage.

For Leader Dogs students, there is a silver lining: Students purchasing their Trekker or Trekker Breeze system from Leader Dogs enroll in the 31⁄2-day training course — and get room and board — for free.

Rules of the Road

Back on Route 2, no buses pass Yaney, though snarling semi trucks speed along about every 10 minutes. Walking steadily, Vista looks up as each diesel behemoth barrels down the road. She assesses the risk, then continues.

Vista and her four-legged counterparts at Leader Dogs don’t need extra training to work in tandem with the Trekker systems. The dogs are trained to filter out mechanical noise like any other distraction and focus on their person.

Vista takes her job seriously. When off-duty, she trundles through Yaney’s house like any other puppy, licking hands and wagging her tail. As Yaney slips Vista’s harness on, her tail stills and she focuses on her person, ready to work.

“They have to be professionals in the harness and huggable when they’re out of it,” says Abraham, explaining the nature of service dogs.

A neon sign on Vista’s harness reading Do Not Pet Me I Am Working may take away from the cuddly ideal, but the message is an important one.

“They’re not pets. They’re a service animal,” Yaney says. She also wants you to know the three rules for approaching people with service animals: Don’t feed them. Don’t pet them. And don’t talk to them.

They’re reasonable demands. Would you want someone trying to rub your belly while you worked?

Speaking of rules, Yancey wants us all to know another one: “Sometimes the sighted person has to realize that the visually impaired person is human. Do not drag a person by the arm. If they look like they need assistance or are lost, ask.”

Editor’s note: Calvert County offers two options — beyond the regular bus — for Pamela Yaney and other disabled travelers: An ADA Bus and four curb-to-curb buses. The ADA bus runs six times a day throughout the county. Appointments must be made for curb-to-curb transport, at $1 per ride: 410-535-4268.

Doggone Interesting

What’s in a Name?

The generic term for dog guides is service animal. The terms guide dogs and seeing-eye dogs describe specialized service animal schools.

Technical Service

Service animals don’t aid just the visually impaired. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animal as: animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure or performing other special tasks. Service animals are working animals, not pets.

Pony Up

Service animals are not exclusively dogs. For the visually impaired with equine aspirations, guide horses — small, harnessed miniature horses — offer an interesting alternative. For more information:

In Numbers

Because national and state laws do not require the registration of a service animal, the exact number working in the United States is not known. Gary C. Norman, president of the Maryland Area Guide Dog Association, estimates 8,000 to 10,000 nationally.

But do they get to visit Mickey?

Walt Disney World allows service animals in its parks, with some rides off limits for these four-legged guides. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and other roller coaster-like rides are service animal prohibited “due to the nature of the experience.”

–Diana Beechener

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