FOLLANSBEE – Paul Brothers of Follansbee knows what it’s like to work with a partner for many years and to grow accustomed to that individual being there when he needs help.
As time passes, the partner is ready to retire, and it’s time to adjust to a new one.
But in Brothers’ case, that partner was a constant companion, both at home and at work, and one with four legs, a tail and a pair of eyes that substitute for his own.
Brothers said his relationship with Martie, the German shepherd he received through Pilot Dogs Inc. was so strong, there was no question he would turn to the organization for another guide dog when Martie, at 13 years of age, became too old to get around as much.
Martie still lives at home with Brothers, but it’s Windsor, a 14-month-old standard poodle, who has taken over the task of helping him to reach various destinations.
Standard poodles, which stand at 15 inches or higher, are among seven breeds trained by Pilot Dogs to serve as guide dogs. In addition to German shepherds, the others are: doberman pinscher, golden retriever, labrador retriever, boxer and vizsla.
Brothers said retired guide dogs trained by Pilot Dogs sometimes stay with their owners, sometimes not. Sometimes they are adopted by a family member of their owners, but Martie had become like family to Brothers since the two were paired in 1998.
Fortunately, she and Windsor get along well, he said.
But before Brothers could adopt Windsor, he had to go back to school – specifically, a training program conducted by staff with Pilot Dogs Inc. at its Columbus-based headquarters.
Brothers said most Pilot Dogs are placed as pups with temporary owners with sight. These volunteers see that the dog is house-broken and receives basic obedience training.
They also are encouraged to expose the dog to other people, animals and a variety of places so it has a wide range of experience.
“They want them to be used to various noises and stuff like that,” Brothers said.
When the dog is 12 to 14 months old, it returns to Pilot Dogs Inc., where it usually undergoes about five months of training.
After that, the dog is paired with its potential permanent owner for about four more weeks of training together. Brothers said because he was a former student, the training period was about two weeks.
“The first thing they focus on is bonding with the dog. That’s a big thing,” he said.
Soon after his arrival, Brothers was responsible for bathing and feeding Windsor. The two shared the same room, and he took Windsor outside to relieve himself when needed, he noted.
The two went to breakfast together and took walks in the morning and after lunch. Over time the length of the walks and the number of obstacles increased.
Finally the pair’s readiness to work together outside the school was determined through a test known as the Achievement Walk, Brothers said.
During the walk, the pair made their way from the school to a bus stop, taking a bus into the city, where they navigated city streets to a designated location and back.
“There are a lot of obstacles, but the dogs do well,” Brothers said, adding there were several other owners and dogs undergoing training at the same time.
Brothers said because he lives in a more rural area, he and Windsor also learned to navigate a country road more similar to his own.
Brothers said Windsor was trained to guide him along sidewalks and berms and around various obstacles, but he directed the canine according to the route given by his instructor. And then as now, he listened to the sound of traffic to determine whether it was safe to cross a street.
He said he’s learned to recognize traffic patterns in cities regulated by traffic signals.
“I tell people I can see as well as they can. I just see in different ways,” Brothers said, noting he knew the coffee shop and Subway restaurants in Columbus by their aromas.
While Brothers was being interviewed on his front porch, a neighbor called to him as he passed slowly by in his vehicle, and Brothers called to him by name.
But Brothers added he’s not shy about asking for help, having lost his sight from diabetes when he was in his late 20s.
Since Brothers returned home from Pilot Dog training, Windsor has accompanied him on walks to his father’s house, at local football games and to visits to a Chinese restaurant in Weirton and Wal-Mart there.
He said staff at the various businesses he’s patronized aren’t fazed by his four-legged companion.
“It’s the kids you’ll hear asking about me and their parents saying, it’s all right for the dog to be there,” Brothers said.
He said children and adults often want to pet a guide dog when they encounter one but should avoid doing that when they see someone walking with one.
“You should never go up to me and try to pet the dog because it distracts not only the the dog but also me,” Brothers said.
He said guide dog owners have different preferences when it comes to strangers approaching the canines in a relaxed setting.
“If I’m sitting in the mall – for me personally – I will let people come up and pet him,” he said.
Brothers has spoken to various groups about Pilot Dogs Inc., noting the nonprofit organization relies solely on private contributions from various sources, including more than 500 Lions clubs.
It was at one of his talks that Brothers met Melinda, his wife of two and a half years.
Melinda said since moving in with Brothers, she has learned to do little things that help him navigate around their home, such as leaving doors completely open or completely closed.
But she added, “I realized right away that he was independent. I think he does more things for me than any sighted man, like cleaning the bathroom and doing the laundry.”
Brothers said he owes thanks also to the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services, which has supplied him with equipment for his home, such as an audio screen reader for his computer, and training and equipment for his job as an independent contractor.
Brothers worked in construction in South Carolina before he became blind and is happy to remain involved in the field.
“It’s just something I love to do. I can’t get out and do the physical work, but there are other things I can do,” he said.
Brothers said while working with subcontractors, he plans various projects and visits the work sites regularly to set up materials and check on the work’s progress.
The projects have ranged from laying a concrete driveway for a Weirton home to re-drywalling a steep stairwell so a chairlift could be installed.