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By Kevin Damask, staff writer with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired

For millions of Americans who are blind or visually impaired, having a guide dog gives them greater independence to perform everyday tasks.

As we honor National Service Dog Month this September, it’s important to emphasize the value of service dogs and the organizations that work to bring them to individuals in need. 

National Service Dog Month, previously known as National Guide Dog Month, was established in 2008 by actor and animal advocate Dick Van Patten, who also ignited a fundraising drive to help service dog training schools in the United States. National Service Dog Month honors guide dogs, seeing-eye dogs, service pets, and other assistance pets.

In Madison, the OccuPaws Guide Dog Association has provided guide dogs for people who are visually impaired since 2005 at no cost to the client. OccuPaws President Barb Schultze said the organization trains dogs from the time they are puppies to a point when they believe a dog is ready to be placed. Volunteers can help raise puppies prior to their arrival to a client’s home. OccuPaws currently has 24 dogs in training.

“We are accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation who puts a seal of approval on guide dog organizations that produce good guide dogs,” Schultze said. “We are audited by them every five years. What’s really great about getting international accreditation is that our veterans who receive dogs can now get them paid for through the Department of Veteran Affairs. It’s so important to get accreditation because it allows us to help others.”

OccuPaws takes about two weeks to place a dog with a client, making sure their home is adapted and the dog fits well with its new owner. After a dog is placed, OccuPaws checks in with clients frequently to make sure the transition is going smoothly.

“We don’t just place them with the client and say goodbye,” Schultze said.

When thinking about life with a guide dog, there are several important factors to consider. A person who is visually impaired that doesn’t leave home regularly may be better suited with a white cane for assistance instead of a dog, according to Schultze. The cost of taking care of a dog for several years also has to be considered.

Schultze said a client’s familiarity with their neighborhood also helps when they are training the dog to guide them throughout the community.

“You also have to consider if you like dogs and are comfortable around them,” Schultze said.

Besides servicing Wisconsin, Occupaws also provides trained dogs to residents in communities within 75 miles of the state’s borders.

The organization welcomes volunteers and donations. OccuPaws also hosts fundraisers throughout the year to support its services.

“We’re always looking for people to raise puppies, so if you’re interested, please let us know,” Schultze said.

For more information on OccuPaws, go to www.occupaws.org or call 608-772-3787.