Meriden couple pays it forward one guide dog at a time

Meriden couple pays it forward one guide dog at a time


MERIDEN — By day, Public Works Director Robert J. Bass is in charge of making sure city roads, bridges, and sidewalks are safe and clear. After hours, he plays a role in ensuring four-legged friends can do the same for the visually impaired.

Bass and his wife Karen train puppies to be guide dogs for the Freedom Guide Dog organization.

Their current 14-week-old Labrador retriever puppy, Yahna, is the 21st dog they’ve trained since starting in 1986.

Sporting a red Freedom Guide Dog vest that dwarfed her still tiny body, Yahna was friendly and curious, if tired (as puppies tend to be), on a recent day at the Bass’ home.

Bob Bass said her easy-going temperament isn’t one shared by all the guide dogs they’ve trained, describing with a laugh a recent Lab puppy as “probably a (German) shepherd in a Lab coat.”

He would know. The Basses began their journey training German shepherds for the larger Fidelco Guide Dog organization, and their two personal pets are both shepherds. They trained 16 shepherds for the group before the breed’s intense, energetic style exacerbated a back issue for Karen. Now they’re both on the board of directors for Freedom Guide Dogs.

“This all started because I have a big mouth,” Bob Bass joked. He explained, “I said I’d like to get a dog, but Karen wasn’t so sure.”

While they were considering it, one of Karen’s coworkers came in with a Fidelco shepherd they were training, and the rest, so to speak, is history.

Now for the most part, Yahna goes wherever they go—coffee shops, restaurants, walks in the neighborhood. The Basses also hand off the leash to friends occasionally, all to get the dog used to the sights, sounds, and smells that might come up when she’s working.

“These dogs need to be able to have spatial awareness as well as an awareness of height,” Karen Bass said. “There could be obstacles that are no problem for a dog to get through, but too low for a person, and they need to be able to recognize that. That’s not something dogs normally have to think about.”

She noted too that ultimately the guide dogs will have to recognize obstacles in the walkway, and decide if it’s safer to go one way around them or the other.

That type of specific training is where the Freedom Guide Dogs’ professional trainers come in.

Eric Loori and his wife Sharon established the organization in 1992 after working with Fidelco themselves for many years.

Eric Loori takes pride in the program’s hometown training, which he says is the only in the country like it. Typically, guide dog clients must travel to a school to train with their dog, then they’re both sent home. Freedom Guide Dogs brings the dog to the person, allowing them to train in their own environment.

“There are some blind people who can’t go away for weeks at a time — parents, or people who can’t take the time off work — these people were falling through the cracks, they were being underserved,” Loori said. “Blind women for example, don’t usually get guide dogs until their kids are in high school.”

Freedom Guide Dogs can also train its dogs to be sensitive to other disabilities. Bob Bass described a blind soldier with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who was matched with a guide dog who could meet both his needs.

Loori said that’s a benefit of working with other breeds of dogs besides shepherds.

“Shepherds are very good at what they do, but they can’t always help with other needs,” he said. “They’re very active, driven dogs.”

The service is provided at no cost to the clients, and like other nonprofit organizations, Freedom Guide Dogs relies on grants and donations to keep going. One big fundraiser in Connecticut is “Dining in the Dark,” held at The Gallery in Glastonbury, where participants are forced to eat their meal in full blindfolded darkness.

Loori also praised the work the Basses have done with the program.

“You hand them a dog, and you get it back in a year and a half, and you don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “They’re energetic in their training.”

And while Karen and Bob Bass said it’s difficult to say goodbye to the pups they’ve trained, it’s a bittersweet part of a process they know helps many others, and a process they plan to continue taking part in, at least for a while.

“Usually we have a new puppy in the house before the older one leaves,” Karen Bass said. “So you’re sort of swept up in that and it doesn’t hurt as much to think about the one that left.”

When it does hurt, Bob Bass said he thinks about the high schooler who received one of their dogs that no longer needs his mother to walk him to the bus stop, or the soldier with PTSD.

“That’s how you do it, by thinking about the other people you’re helping,” Bob Bass said. “You have to be willing to give up a little of yourself. It’s one of those pay-it-forward situations, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it along the way.” 203-317-2279 Twitter: @MollCal

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