Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Service dogs making a whole world of difference for some

service dog

Hackett and his human, Dave Thomas. PHOTO BY: David Pahl.

There’s a new dude on DU’s campus, but he won’t take any tests, write any term papers or read a single book. 

Yet everybody likes him — even professors. 

His name is Hackett, a black Labrador retriever and guide dog for Dave Thomas, a new employee who’s blind and works in the University’s disability services program. 

“Hackett likes DU a lot, he gets plenty of affection and he loves the snow,” Thomas says. “And I’m getting more familiar with the campus. I don’t have trouble navigating, especially since I’m not shy about asking strangers for directions.” 

Those strangers become fast friends with Hackett. 

“He is very handsome,” Thomas says. “I regularly hear people say what a beautiful animal he is.” 

Thomas’s blindness is congenital, caused by glaucoma coupled with a rare cornea disease called Rieger’s Syndrome. Until he was 13, the vision in his left eye was essentially nonexistent and his right eye was 20/200 (what a perfectly sighted person can see at a distance of 200 feet, Thomas could see only at 20 feet). 

His vision further deteriorated throughout his teens. He tried medications, surgeries and contact lenses to no avail. 

By age 22, Thomas began using a cane. And soon after that, he says, he considered a guide dog. 

Hackett, who celebrated his sixth birthday (in human years) in January, entered Thomas’s life in 2002. 

“I hope to have him for another six years. He helps me get around so much more easily,” Thomas says. 

Guide dogs are not new at the University. This spring, DU had four students who used service dogs. 

One of those students is Dave Bahr, a sophomore who is blind. His guide dog is Katie, a black Lab he got last summer. 

“We’re a new team, but we’re getting better everyday,” Bahr says. “She guides me around obstacles and across streets safely. Sometimes she even stops and backs me up if traffic poses a danger.” 

Bahr says he’s impressed with how DU works to help the disabled and that the disabilities office has given him suggested routes to better navigate the campus and advice on how to deal with all the recent snow. 

Thomas says DU is highly respected for its work and successes with students who have disabilities and that DU works to ensure that those students have “the best opportunity to access the full breadth of the education available.” 

Certainly, Hackett and Katie are doing their part to make life easier for their owners. 

Doggie directives
For the blind, guide dogs adhere to “forward,” “left,” “right” and “halt” commands, they stop at curbs and stairs, and they can even find elevators, escalators and doors. For the deaf, they alert handlers when a phone, a doorbell or smoke alarm rings. And for the physically disabled, they flip light switches, open doors and pick up items off the floor. 

Service dogs are trained at schools that specialize in preparing them for the specific tasks. And, says DU’s Dave Thomas, if they fail guide dog tests, they’re “career changed” into police dogs, sniffing dogs or therapy pets. 

Here are a few rules that the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind recommends you follow when near a guide dog: 
1. Don’t distract the dog, but with the owner’s permission, you may stroke the dog on the shoulder area. 
2. Don’t feed the dog. 
3. Don’t walk near the dog’s left side (he may become distracted or confused). Walk on the owner’s right side but several paces behind him. 
4. Don’t attempt to steer the person while the dog is guiding. However, it is OK to ask the owner if he or she needs any assistance. If so, offer your left arm.

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