Seeing eye dog changes long time blind man?s life
Although Jim Unger is blind, he’s recently gained a new perspective on life. Through the eyes of a beautiful golden dog, this caring teacher now navigates his days with a new best friend and partner, a family member that is always at his side.
Foster, a golden retriever/lab mix, just recently came into Jim’s life. This fetching canine now serves as his master’s eyes and it’s clear this relationship is one based on love and respect.
“I feel so lucky to have Foster as my seeing eye dog,” Jim said. “I really didn’t know how much having a seeing eye dog would change my life but it has.”
Although born being able to see, Jim started losing his sight at a young age when he was diagnosed with a disease known as Atypical Retinitis Pigmentosa.
“This is a hereditary disease although no one else in my family has it,” he said. “I was in high school when I noticed my eyesight getting worse. It is degenerative so since that time I’ve been slowly losing my sight.”
But going blind did not stop Jim from fulfilling his goals in life, although he has had to make some concessions as far as his career goes. However, that has turned out to be a bonus for other people that are blind or losing their sight.
“I wanted to become a mechanic when I was younger,” he said. “But going blind changed all that.”
Jim is a rehabilitation specialist for the blind and works for the state of Wisconsin. He travels throughout more than seven counties in the Northwoods, teaching people who are losing their sight, or are blind, how to stay independent by coming into their homes and showing them methods and techniques in a world geared toward the sighted.
Jim grew up in Waukesha and after realizing his dream of being an auto mechanic was not possible he changed his focus, deciding to go into a field that would help others. Throughout his career he has, in one form or another, been a teacher and a mentor for people who are losing, or have lost, their sight.
Jim was a teacher of the blind for 15 years at North Central Technical College in Wausau before moving to Rhinelander a couple of years ago to become an itinerant teacher for the northern part of the state. It was this career move that made him start seriously thinking about getting a trained seeing eye dog.
“I was used to a cane and I had the transit system when I lived in Wausau,” he said. “But moving here made me start considering getting a seeing eye dog.”
Last year he decided the time was right to pursue this dream and he applied to The Seeing Eye, an organization that trains dogs, and blind people, to work together as a team.
“Over the years I have met lots of seeing eye dogs,” he said. “I was always impressed with the dogs that came from The Seeing Eye. That’s my personal opinion but it seemed to me that the dogs I met that came from The Seeing Eye had the best training.”
Jim applied and was accepted into the month long program that is based in Morristown, New Jersey.
“It’s a very intensive interview process,” said Jim. “They came to my house to do an interview and you have to submit medical reports and other paperwork. They also test you to see if you will be able to work with a dog with a harness. Sometimes people that have used a cane their entire life have a hard time relying on a dog.”
And Jim found that fact to be true when he finally settled in the facilities at The Seeing Eye. The first step in training a person for a seeing eye dog is having an instructor lead the trainee while they hold onto a harness in a simulation exercise.
“It takes getting used to being led instead of walking along with a cane,” said Jim. “It’s a big adjustment.”
On the second day at the facility Jim met Foster.
“The instructors pick out the dog they feel is best suited to you,” said Jim. “From the moment I met Foster I knew he was the perfect dog for me.”
Right away the pair began their training.
“At first I had to get over the notion that I was walking a dog,” said Jim. “You have to develop a sense of trust in your dog and that can be hard to do at first.”
But it didn’t take long for Jim to let Foster lead the way. Along with the instructors, Jim and Foster racked up plenty of miles walking all over Morristown. The dog and handler is put through many tests. For instance the handler is taught to trust his dog explicitly, even though he may think otherwise.
“At one time Foster stopped at a curb on a busy street,” said Jim. “I didn’t hear any cars and thought it would be OK to cross the street, but Foster wouldn’t go. Then my instructor told me that a Prius was passing by and since they are electric cars and don’t make noise Foster kept me safe.”
Jim has always been a dog lover and owner throughout his life and knew it may take some time for Foster to bond with him. Although that process can take weeks Jim knew Foster considered him his new owner after an incident at school.
One day Foster had to have a check up and was gone for a couple of hours but when he was returned to Jim the dog was so excited.
“We had only been working together for a couple weeks but once he came back he was so glad to see me. That’s when I knew he was really my dog.”
Jim learned something else during that short time period also.
“I had to go down the hall to drop something off and had to go back to my cane,” he said. “That’s when I knew how big a difference this dog was going to be in my life. You can get around with a lot more confidence and a lot faster when you have a seeing eye dog.”
After their month long training, Jim returned home and that also was an adjustment that Foster passed with flying colors. Jim’s household includes his wife Pat, and a Weimaraner named Willi.
“They show you how to introduce your dog to your household,” said Jim. “We did exactly as they said and everything went smoothly. Now Foster and Willi are best of friends.”
That also goes for Pat, although when she went to pick up Jim from the airport she had to exercise plenty of restraint. One of the hardest lessons for the public to learn is that they can’t touch a seeing eye dog while it is in its harness. These dogs are trained to know that when they are wearing their harness it’s work time.
“I really, really wanted to give that dog a big hug when I saw him,” said Pat. “But I held off until when we got home and made all the introductions and his harness came off.”
It’s only been a couple of months since Foster has been in the Unger home, but the difference he is making in Jim’s life is immeasurable. Not only is he providing more independence for Jim, but he also has a certain aura, that draws people to the pair.
“People just naturally come up and start talking to us,” Jim said. “It seems like when you have a dog at your side people aren’t so shy about asking questions.”
And that’s OK with Jim who is a natural born teacher. In fact, he hopes that area organizations, schools and anyone who wants to learn more about Foster or blindness gives him a call so he can show others how to pursue their dreams no matter what life brings.
“My passion is to help people to stay independent even though they may be losing their vision,” said Jim. “Foster not only helps me with my own independence but he also lets others see what is possible.”
Jim can be reached at 715-365-2804.