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At Perkins, applause for stamps honoring service dogs

By Cindy Cantrell
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2012
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WATERTOWN - Anne DeFeo had always found ways to compensate for her vision loss since contracting toxoplasmosis at age 19, but the natural aging process forced her to get a white cane about seven years ago. Then she noticed several fellow senior citizens at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown had guide dogs, and, at age 70, she decided to get one of her own.

Now 73, the Arlington resident said it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“She’s the love of my life, and she loves me. We’re joined at the hip,’’ DeFeo said of her 4 1/2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, Viv.

On Valentine’s Day, DeFeo and Viv will participate with other guide dogs and their owners in a ceremony at Perkins honoring the US Postal Service for its new 65-cent “Dogs at Work’’ series of stamps. The series depicts a guide dog, therapy dog, military tracking dog, and search-and-rescue dog, and celebrates the “enduring partnership between dogs and people.’’

Designed by Postal Service art director Howard E. Paine, the four stamps feature original paintings by John M. Thompson, an illustration professor at Syracuse University.

Television newscaster Randy Price will emcee the 1:30 p.m. ceremony Tuesday in the historic Howe Building on the Perkins campus, 175 North Beacon St.

The event will include speakers on the importance of guide and service dogs in their lives, and a presentation by Perkins Elder Book Club members on “Thunder Dog,’’ a true story recounted by Michael Hingson about a guide dog’s heroics on Sept. 11, 2001. There will be gift bags of dog biscuits made by Perkins students, and the presentation of a plaque to Boston’s postmaster, James Holland, in honor of the Postal Service’s longtime commitment to the blind and visually impaired.

DeFeo will be there as a person with first-hand knowledge of the bond between guide dogs and their owners.

“She’s meant a whole new life of independence for me,’’ said DeFeo, describing the confidence she feels from Viv’s presence, guiding her almost imperceptibly. “I’m a people person, and now I’m never alone. My pal is always right by my side. She’s just the best.’’

Watertown resident Kim Charlson, director of the Braille & Talking Book Library at Perkins, coordinated the event after learning about the stamps. Through the Postal Service’s free delivery of reading material and sound recordings for the blind, the library serves 25,000 people across Massachusetts who cannot read ordinary printed material due to visual impairment, reading disability, or physical disability.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the post office,’’ said Charlson, who will attend the event with her 3 1/2-year-old guide dog, Dolly, a 44-pound German shepherd who accompanies her to conferences nationwide.

Charlson said she estimates that there are 100,000 residents who would qualify to use the library’s free services and materials such as large print, Braille, and digital audio books and magazines, but aren’t aware of its existence.

“Events like this help get the word out’’ that the library “is here and we can help,’’ she added. “So many borrowers say they don’t know what they’d do without access to books and reading. It makes such a difference to their quality of life.’’

Canton resident Dave Lynn, the Blinded Veterans Association representative to the Braille & Talking Book Library, will be accompanied Tuesday by his 6-year-old guide dog, Blazer, a red Doberman pinscher.

Lynn, whose degenerative retinitis pigmentosa forced him to medically retire from his 14-year Air Force career in 2003, will share the steps involved in being matched in need and personality with a service animal, and how Blazer has improved his life. While he previously used a white cane to navigate public transportation, Lynn said, Blazer helps him find doors, escalators, and elevators more quickly.

At times, however, Blazer has become too smart for his own good, Lynn said. He emphasizes the importance of dog handling and directional skills, particularly when long-practiced routes suddenly change - such as when he gets a new class schedule at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he is majoring in history.

“Blazer gives me the ability to navigate the world much more efficiently,’’ said Lynn, who describes the 94-pound canine as a “terrific’’ guide dog, but also “the biggest goof on the planet’’ who resumes his fun-loving, attention-seeking ways the second that his harness is removed.

In addition to posting a sign on the harness alerting strangers that Blazer is working, Lynn said, he looks for opportunities to educate the public that guide dogs are service animals, not pets. As such, he is serious about his responsibility of properly controlling his dog in public places. In return, he wishes people would ask before petting Blazer - a distraction that can be compared to pulling on a driver’s steering wheel.

“I understand people like dogs, but it’s so nice when I walk into a place and they don’t acknowledge the dog is there,’’ he said. “They treat me like everybody else, which is what should happen.’’

Brighton resident Carl Richardson, president of Guide Dog Users of Massachusetts, will speak about “these amazing dogs who dedicate their entire lives to us,’’ and the assistance they provide for a wide range of disabilities: safely navigating around obstacles, retrieving items, helping with balance, alerting people to everything from a ringing doorbell to an oncoming seizure.

Richardson, who is visually impaired and hard of hearing, emphasizes that the use of a service dog versus a white cane is strictly a personal choice. And while he agrees that people should ask permission before approaching guide dogs, he credits his first guide dog, Kiva, with helping to court his wife, Megan Sullivan, a Boston University associate professor.

Richardson credits his current guide dog, Kinley, a 7 1/2-year-old black Lab, with reducing his reliance on his wife, and providing an extra set of eyes and ears throughout his daily commute on the bus and subway.

“She doesn’t have to worry about me because that’s Kinley’s job,’’ said Richardson, who is the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator at the State House.

Richardson said he is fortunate to still have Kiva, a 14-year-old yellow Lab whom he retired as his service dog due to her arthritis at age 9. Because 70 percent of the blind community are unemployed, he said, many guide-dog owners can’t afford to care for multiple animals.

“I’m so glad the US Postal Service is honoring these magnificent dogs, because I can’t imagine my life without one,’’ he added. “I also hope the stamps bring more recognition and awareness so when we bring our dogs into public places, people know it’s not a big deal.’’

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