By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
RICHBORO – Diana Sherman, who is a parishioner and business manager at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Richboro, sometimes takes a dog or two to work or to church. Her kids, Danielle, 15; Sydney, 13; and Jacquelyn, 12, might even take a dog to Archbishop Wood High School or St. Bede School, Holland, where they attend. No one minds.
The Shermans are a volunteer foster family for future “seeing eye” guide dogs for the blind, and the dogs are part of the family. If all goes well, they will someday be the constant companion of someone who is blind. Right now the Shermans have Duchess, a 10-week-old German Shepherd; Jessica, an 8-month-old Chocolate Lab; and Hugger, a 1-year-old Golden Retriever.
Then there is their family dog, Coco, who has her own purpose. She is the alpha dog, Sherman said. Families have to have another dog to serve in that role because guide dogs are trained not to be alpha dogs.
The dogs are only part of the menagerie on the Sherman family farm. Diana and her husband Rush, who relocated to the Philadelphia area from Bethlehem, Pa., after they married 20 years ago, also have five horses, four cats and two pigs. All were rescued for one reason or another, a special concern of Rush, and would probably be dead if the family hadn’t taken them in.
For example, one horse, a thoroughbred, couldn’t run fast enough to earn his keep. Another, an Arabian, had probably been abused. Now they might have a happy and useful life giving rides at an equestrian center for the disabled or for pony rides at parish and school festivals.
The funny thing about all of this is, “I never had an animal when I was growing up,” Diana Sherman said.
The family got into training guide dogs through the three girls, who learned about it at their local 4-H Club – an organization their mother can’t say enough good things about.
Foster parenting guide dogs, they have discovered, takes a lot of work. The dogs, bred for size, temperament and intelligence and rigorously screened, are placed with families after they are weaned and kept until they are about 16 months.
Training is constant; they must learn to always lead from the left side and ahead of the person. At night they are tethered to the foot of the bed because they are in training to be with an owner at all times.
Caring for the dogs was not just a passing fancy for her daughters, who are also active as altar servers and in youth ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.
“This is 24/7 community service,” Diana Sherman said. “If the dog cries in the middle of the night and needs to go out, the kids will get up and walk the dog.”
She estimates about 50 percent of the dogs who enter training successfully complete the course and become guide dogs. After the dogs leave the Shermans’ care they are returned to the Southampton Seeing Eye Club for advanced training by a professional trainer for four months and for a final month together with their future master.
But the end result is well worth the effort. “It’s rewarding to know what these dogs are capable of,” Sherman said, “and to hear blind graduates speak of what the dog means in their life. It’s tremendous.”
For more information on guide dogs see www.seeingeye.com.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.