Lead on: NIU student teams up with a Leader Dog

By on December 10, 2010

by Lynn Meredith
Elburn—For 10 years, Cory Lipsett, who is visually impaired, used a cane to help him find his way around obstacles that he encountered in his daily life. He also used a Treker GPS system to find locations. Neither of these options available to those whose vision is impaired could compare to his current companion, Ragin the guide dog.

“Basically, for 10 years, I used a piece of graphite. It keeps you safe to a point, but it’s not what you want. You’re thinking, ‘there’s got to be something better than this,’” Lipsett said. “A dog is the next step from a cane for more mobility purposes.”

Ragin is a two-year-old German Shepherd that has been trained by Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Michigan-based training program that matches and trains guide dogs for the visually impaired. Lipsett was recommended by the Elburn Lion’s Club and is their first recipient. Lipsett spoke to the club Monday at the monthly dinner and presentation.

He described, with a good dose of humor, that the process of getting a guide dog is not quick, mainly because recipients have to be at a level of independence where they can navigate for themselves. Being independent is something that Lipsett has been focused on all his life.

“It’s a long process. I started mine in fifth grade when I learned things like how to cross the street safely. Then in high school, I learned getting on the train and going into Chicago, taking CTA buses and cabs to get wherever,” Lipsett said. “I have to be able to travel safely. He (Ragin) is not a horse—I wish he were sometimes—but he isn’t. He won’t just take you where you want to go.”

As a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, Lipsett lives in the dormitory and has a roommate. Ragin lives in the room with them.

“The day-to-day life of a college student is simple. Ragin gets food and water first thing in the morning. After that it’s work time,” Lipsett said. “Then he’s on my time. He gets harnessed up, and we go to class. He knows which door I like to go in and even knows where I sit. It’s nice when they start to learn your schedule.”

When Ragin isn’t working, he is out of his harness, either sleeping on Lipsett’s roommate’s bed or chasing his tail. Lipsett hopes to procure a key to the tennis courts so he can throw the ball for Ragin and give him more play time. Ragin also enjoys observing the people around him.

“He likes to people watch. He stares at them. Then his ears go up and his nose goes down,” Lipsett said.

Jim Lipsett, Cory’s father, points out that a guide dog is not a pet. His job is to help Cory avoid obstacles in their path. Since Cory got Ragin six months ago, he has been able to travel at night, giving him more confidence.

“It’s peace of mind. Traveling at night was always a concern for me,” Cory said. “Last year I avoided night time travel. But this year (with Ragin), it’s no different than getting around during the day.”

Leader Dogs for the Blind has been around for 70 years. Each year, more than 270 students attend a 26-day residential training session to be paired with a guide dog. In Lipsett’s class, students ranged in age from 16 to 87 years old. The dogs they were paired with ranged in size from 40 to 70 pounds.

The puppies are raised in private homes from the time they are seven weeks old until they are over a year old. They are taught basic obedience and house manners. Also, they are exposed to a variety of public places with different types of people, animals and events.

When the dog is paired with a recipient, the two begin to learn about each other during training and at home.

“When you’re done with training, it’s really the half of it. The real work begins when you get home,” Lipsett said. “An effective guide dog team is when he knows what he needs to do all the time, and I know what I need to do all the time. This is when the dog can truly work: he’s in his groove and knows what’s going on.”

When Ragin is working, people are asked not to pet him.

“It distracts him and gets him unfocused. It changes his mindset from working to wanting to solicit attention,” Lipsett said.

Because they are together all the time, when they are not for some reason, Lipsett feels the loss.

“It feels weird not to have him with me,” he said. “It’s like something is supposed to be there and it’s not.”

Lions’ monthly dinners
The Elburn Lions Club hold monthly dinners and presentations on a variety of topics.

Wednesday, Dec. 29,
the director of Tails Humane Society
from DeKalb will speak.

Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011,
a program on bullying will be presented by
the Center for Rural Psychology.

Cash bar opens at 6 p.m., and dinner is served at 6:45. Dinner reservations are required.

For more information and
to make dinner reservations, call (630) 365-6315.