Andrews Lions' support of leader dog program comes back to Walker

Aspen, a chocolate Labrador retriever Leader Dog, leads Bud Walker down Walker’s driveway in Andrews. Walker got Aspen three years ago through the Leader Dogs for the Blind program.
Aspen, a chocolate Labrador retriever Leader Dog, leads Bud Walker down Walker’s driveway in Andrews. Walker got Aspen three years ago through the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Photo by Matt Murphy.

Originally published Aug. 27, 2009.

Andrews residents Bud and Joyce Walker's lives were saved from a negligent driver a short while ago - by a dog.

The couple was making a routine trip to the Wal-Mart store in Huntington. Bud, who is legally blind, was preparing to go across the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the store when a pickup truck sped through the intersection without stopping at the posted signs.

The dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Aspen, quickly stepped in front of Bud and Joyce and prevented them from coming into the path of the speeding truck.

"He saved both our lives," Bud says.

Aspen is not just any dog, however. He is a trained "leader dog," a dog that has learned to safely guide visually-impaired people just about everywhere - from shopping centers and restaurants, to trains and planes, to the crosswalk at Wal-Mart.

Aspen has helped lead Bud around for the past three years. Bud obtained Aspen through the "Leader Dogs for the Blind" organization based in Rochester, MI.

Members from several Detroit-area Lions Clubs founded the internationally recognized group in 1939. This leader dog institution is, for the most part, still supported by Lions Clubs around the world.

Interestingly enough, both Bud and Joyce Walker are past presidents, and are still active members, of the Andrews Lions Club.

The Andrews Lions have sent many donations to Leader Dogs for the Blind over the years, meaning that Bud and Joyce have both worked to support a program that has ended up helping their own family.

"Every year, the Andrews Lions Club donates to several programs," Joyce says. "We have a budget each year that donates so much to charities."

Bud and Joyce say that in addition to the Leader Dog Program, the club has donated to the Indianapolis School for the Blind, KidSight and several organizations that deal with cancer.

"But you do not have to be a Lions Club member to be in the Leader Dog program," Bud says.

Bud's doctor in Fort Wayne got him interested in having a leader dog, and the couple obtained an application.
The couple says that the application process, though straightforward, was rigorous nonetheless.

"We had to send a video of Bud walking with our application," Joyce says. "Then, Leader Dogs sent a representative to our house to do an interview and take another video of Bud walking."

Joyce says the videos are made to determine an applicant's needs for a dog.

Once Bud was accepted, he attended a 26-day training camp at the Leader Dog's facility in Michigan - for free, as the organization runs completely from donations. No state or federal funds are given to the non-profit institution.

Bud says that the total price for a dog, from the dog's training to the applicant's training with the dog, runs somewhere between $32,000 and $35,000, though the applicant never pays a cent.

Aspen's training, as with all leader dogs, began when he was a puppy.

Leader Dogs for the Blind has many "puppy trainers" around the country who get the pup used to all kinds of people and environments.

After one year of training, the dogs are sent to the Rochester site, where they receive further instruction and await the people they will lead.

The dogs learn commands and they learn to know if certain situations are safe or dangerous for the person they are leading.

"It's so rigorous," Joyce says. "It's worse than the military, I think."

When applicants arrive at the Leader Dog facility, they become "students" and learn how to work with the dog in their daily lives.

"The last week in Michigan, they were trained to take us across a four-lane highway," Bud says. "He'll go forward until he thinks it's not safe."

Aspen's training showed that day at Wal-Mart.

"I'm not even afraid to get in a fight, because I know he'll protect me," Bud says.

The Walkers say that Aspen is just like any other dog - he enjoys running in the yard and playing with all kinds of toys. The difference comes when the harness is put on Aspen.

"His personality completely changes," Bud says. "It's like he knows it's time to work."

Aspen has become a part of the Walker family, and he goes everywhere with the couple, even on vacations to Branson, MO, and Tennessee.

"We went in ‘ducks' (vehicles that can travel in water) in Branson, and he had his own seat and life vest," Joyce says, smiling. "He was a privileged guest."

Around town, Aspen goes in stores and restaurants with the couple, as federal law requires businesses to allow leader dogs inside their premises.

"When we go in restaurants, he just goes and lies under the table until we're finished," Bud says.

"We wouldn't take him in a store like Hallmark, though, because of his big tail," says Joyce.

Bud says that when he passes away, it will be up to Joyce to decide whether to keep Aspen as a pet or to send him back to the Leader Dog program, as Aspen legally belongs to the couple.

"I couldn't part with him," Joyce says.