DeKALB – After graduating from school, most people return home with a diploma. Michael Grunze of DeKalb returned home with a dog.
Grunze was one of 10 participants in Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Residential Training program for three weeks in December in Yorktown Heights, New York. Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a nonprofit, charitable organization that provides free assistance for blind and visually impaired people through the support of private donations.
Grunze, who has had severe vision loss since birth because of Leber congenital amaurosis, is legally blind. He describes his vision as “light perceptions, with the ability to see light and dark, but objects look like blobs.”
At the start of the program, Grunze was paired with a 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever named Amie. Grunze and Amie spent the next three weeks receiving individualized training, working with expert trainers and instructors and learning to work together as a team.
Upon completion of the program, Grunze returned home with Amie. Grunze said that both he and Amie are now settling down to a routine. Amie now accompanies Grunze to work and is being integrated into the family with Grunze’s wife Nicole and their other dog.
Grunze spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, both his and Amie’s training and life with a service dog.
Milton: Tell me about Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s training program.
Grunze: Once Amie and I were paired, we worked for about three weeks together. During that time, we went through training and were getting to bond. It’s important for me to know what I’m doing and that she knows what she’s doing.
Milton: What are some things that you learned while there?
Grunze: We learned from instructors about how to handle everyday situations, like crossing the street and navigating stores. I spent almost three weeks in New York for the program. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun. I would describe it as a resort and a boot camp. You get food and linens like at a hotel, but you have a full-time job training with your dog while you’re there. You train 24 hours a day, and at the end, you go home with the dog.
Milton: Is Amie your first service dog?
Grunze: No, Amie is my second dog, and both were through Guiding Eyes for the Blind. After my first dog passed away, it took me some time to reapply. Amie is still a young dog, and my previous dog was 12 when she passed away. Amie is different – she is more affectionate and stubborn, which can be a good thing.
Milton: How does Amie help you?
Grunze: She helps me navigate, and she’s quicker than a cane. Instead of running into items with a cane, she can immediately go around items. She makes walking around easier for me. She is trained to keep me out of dangerous situations, like traffic. With her around, I know that I will never walk off a ledge or fall down a flight of stairs.
Milton: Does Amie have training that is specific to you?
Grunze: Each dog is matched with an owner based on personality, pace and need. Some people and their dogs live in the city and need to be trained for subways and downtown traffic. I live in DeKalb, a more rural environment, so we trained more about walking shopping carts.
Milton: How is Amie different from other dogs?
Grunze: The dog is my partner. She is not a pet. She is a working dog, a service animal. I am strict about not feeding her people food, and her purpose is to be my guide. We do obedience training every day, and she comes with me to work. I am a team with my dog, but unlike a regular team, there’s more fur, I take her for walks to the bathroom, and I give her lots of pets and belly rubs. She loves to play.
Milton: Do you have any advice to people who see you walking with Amie?
Grunze: Don’t pet a working dog. I rely on the dog to keep me safe, and when she is being petted and you are trying to get her attention, she is not focusing on her work. I know that people are curious, and I never mind talking to people and giving them information. Just don’t pet her, it is really annoying. It can possibly lead to me getting into a dangerous situation.