SPOONER – Glacier, an English Labrador and guide dog, flew into the arms of those present at the Spooner Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Friday, Sept. 30.
Glacier recognized many people at the DNR, as she grew up and was trained to be a Leader Dog by DNR workers Mike and Tracy Zeckmeister of Shell Lake before traveling to her new owners, Tim and Cheryl Cuneo, down south. The Cuneos and Glacier traveled to Wisconsin last week, where they had a meet and greet at the DNR Friday morning.
The Zeckmeisters have been training English Labradors through Leader Dogs for the Blind, and then Can Do Canines, since 2010-11. Tracy became interested in training guide dogs for visually impaired persons when a DNR colleague in Eau Claire who worked for Leader Dogs wanted a local group up north. The Zeckmeisters went to Can Do Canines when their colleague retired. The Zeckmeisters as “puppy raisers” had lots of support from friends, local businesses and the Lions Organization, which works with Leader Dogs for the Blind, based in Michigan. Mike brought his leader dogs, including Glacier, to work with him every day before he retired, and they became part of the DNR family in Spooner.
Glacier was just a puppy, born to a show dog, when she came to Shell Lake in March 2018 to start the first step in her journey to become a guide dog for a visually impaired or blind person; the dogs eventually return to Leader Dogs for further training.
Mike said their work is all volunteer, “mainly to get the dog socialized.” They get the dogs used to being in an office setting, to different sounds and public transportation, if their owner relies on it. The dogs have to be exact and perfect, as their owners’ safety is in their paws.
“We had to cover all our bases,” Mike said.
He said they only work with English Labradors, as history says the British made this breed adaptable in social settings because they were brought everywhere. American Labradors, in contrast, are often bred for hunting, Mike said, so the English breed is more sensitive.
The Zeckmeisters have trained six Leader Dogs, and all graduated and were placed with clients, which is great, as often “only three out of 10 make it,” Tim said.
“We’re pretty well six for six,” Mike added.
Glacier was matched with Tim and Cheryl in Winder, Ga., three years ago.
“She’s my dog, but she’ll always be their puppy,” Tim said. “This little town helped raise her.”
Tim’s storyTim was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 12. He couldn’t see in the dark and had trouble playing sports, since his peripheral vision was off.
Retinitis pigmentosa means parts of the eye are dying, and 50% of those with the condition become fully blind, Tim said.
As an adult, Tim worked for an optical company, making glasses and helping others to see better, “to help their eyes while mine was deteriorating.” He had a hard time driving at night, and eventually had to leave his job, taking early retirement. However, Tim said, early retirement isn’t as fun when you’re disabled. He also disliked the fact that Cheryl had to become the breadwinner in the family.
“For a man, that’s tough,” Tim said. “I’m stubborn.”
He lost more and more independence and became angry.
“My story is nothing but loss,” Tim said. “I started going to dark places. And then I started to get mean.”
“We tried to keep it light, but I knew it was killing him,” Cheryl said. “He’s always been the life of our group of friends. When he found Leader Dog, I said, ‘Go. Please go.’”
Tim first reached out for help to the state of Georgia, and found out at age 48, he was too old to receive assistance.
Tim then found the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and got a cane, which he hated and felt embarrassed to use. Then, at age 48, he met his first blind person, who convinced him to go to an NFB convention in Florida. It was great to finally find others who understood what he was going through.
While there, Tim learned about Leader Dogs, which is the only guide dog training school in the United States that works with cane users. Tim wanted to learn more, but lost interest after a week, and things got rough again. Wanting to get out of his funk, Tim eventually sent out an application to Leader Dogs and went to Michigan, where it was 28 degrees and snowy, which the southerner was not used to. However, everyone at Leader Dogs made him feel normal.
Tim tried out an ambassador dog, and was in love.
“I wanted this dog to go home with me,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do.”
Tim went to another convention, and met Glacier two days in. The training school doesn’t tell you anything about the dog other than its name, but “this black streak just ran through the room. I started talking to her and she gave me a kiss immediately.”
He then found out about her owners and contacted them, and they became fast friends.
Glacier is now almost 5 years old, and has taken care of Tim completely. After one spill, she learned from her mistake and is very protective of Tim, even though she isn’t trained as a guard dog. She can stop on her leash if there is something in the way, or put her feet up, so he can feel the tilt of elevation. She has stopped him just for tape on the ground, Tim said.
In turn, Cheryl gets her independence back, as well.
“She loves to work,” Tim said. “(I) get kisses every night. A cane can’t do that.”
The Cuneos recently went on a cruise with 4,00 people and Glacier got along well with the other passengers. She also enjoys camping, when “she gets to be a dog for the weekend.”
When Glacier retires, and many retire after about eight years, Tim said they hope to be able to keep her, depending on their financial situation. The Cuneos will have to get another guide dog and make sure, if Glacier stays with them, there is no issue between the two. Their backup plan is Mike and Tracy, who are in the Cuneos’ will.
“I know one day I’m going to go totally blind,” Tim said. “But I’m at peace with it.”
Friday’s meet and greetTim and Cheryl took Glacier to the Shell Lake School Thursday, Sept. 29, where the students adored her. The two told their story to the DNR and others Friday morning. They enjoyed refreshments, handed out T-shirts that read, “Glacier’s Fan Club” and let her off the leash and harness so she could play enthusiastically with her former family. Glacier is a brand ambassador for her training company, and along with her owners, helped raise $250,000 for the organization last year.
“She’s a success today because of these two,” Tim said of the Zeckmeisters. “She saved my life. She’s just like one of my kids. Thank you guys for letting Mike do what he does here.”
Tim has his own podcast called “Taking the Lead” on leaderdog.org.
“Don’t take (sight) for granted, because you can lose that tomorrow,” Tim said.
The Zeckmeisters are currently training Simone, a yellow English Labrador, for her future job. He said that even though lying down is considered working for a guide dog, Simone feels lazy and dislikes it. Every dog is different, and they have to focus on their strengths. One dog they were training was blind in one eye, and they didn’t find out right away, but the dog adjusted because that was what he knew. He ended up retiring early, at 4 months, “which was really hard on us,” Mike said.
Mike said it will be harder working with Simone since he doesn’t have an office to go to anymore since retiring, “so we go into grocery stores more” to get the dogs socialized. Going to church is very important because of the sound, the music, the chairs, the people.”