Guide dogs unlike any other - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Guide dogs unlike any other


MADISON (WKOW) -- Jennifer Koch is a busy woman. She works, goes to school at Madison Area Technical College, and is working toward her certificate in human resources.

If you're going to tag along, you better walk fast.  You see, Jennifer is always on the move.

When Jennifer walks to her bus stop she's not alone.  She's getting help from Hanna, her new guide dog from Occupaws, a not for profit company that provides guide dogs to the visually impaired in Madison.

Koch has only known Hanna for about a week.  That's why "Doug the Trainer" is tagging along.  Before Hanna and Occupaws, Koch used a cane to make it through the day.

Occupaws came into being when Nicole Meadowcraft founded the program in December 2005. Meadowcraft is also legally blind.  She has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that's eating away at her sight.  There is no cure.  All she has left is a little pinhole of central vision.  That too, will disappear.

One big objective for Meadowcraft when she founded Occupaws was making sure those who needed the help could get it for free.

"That's really the biggest feat for us right now is raising the money to get these dogs out to the blind community," she said.  "It costs our organization $18,000 to $25,000 per dog from start to finish.  So that's really our biggest mountain that we're climbing right now."

So far, it's working.  Occupaws is different than many agencies because it brings its dogs to you.  That means Jennifer Koch's life goes on with more companionship and help than she could ever get from a cane.

Right now she's working on the do's and dont's of using a guide dog during her daily routine.

"Sometimes I have a tendency to pull up on the harness and I'm not supposed to do that, or I get ahead of her," said Koch.  "Sometimes I have a tendency to direct her. Where I think she should go instead of following her, and it's important to follow them so they can do their job."

Koch will soon be on her own. She just needs a little more time with her new best friend.  "I'm learning how to get to work, and I'm learning how to get around school with Hanna and I'm learning, you know, just how to take care of her in the work environment," she said.

It's a work environment Meadowcraft knows well.  As she builds Occupaws, creates awareness, and looks for financial support, she never strays from her mission of helping the visually impaired.

"It's a big job, but it's a needed service here for the blind people here in our community that desire the independence that a guide dog can give you but can't leave their professional commitments or their families or if they have a secondary health condition that prevents them from leaving home for four weeks, they're stuck," she said.  "They're stuck."

And anyone who can teach a black lab to stay put in the park when the ducks are just inches from his snout has got to be doing something right.

That's why Nicole Meadowcroft from Occupaws is someone you should know.

Occupaws does not charge its customers or those it helps for placing a guide dog.  Everyone on staff, including Nicole Meadowcroft are all volunteers.

Many service dog agencies either charge for a dog or expect you to travel out of state to learn how to work with one.

CLICK HERE to email story ideas to feature reporter Joe LaBarbera.

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