You’re Never Too Old

GDA’s ‘No Upper-Age Limit’ Policy Keeps These Three Graduates Going and Going and Going

When Guide Dogs of America was founded more than 65 years ago, one of the founding principles was that no one would be denied a guide dog from the school based on his or her age. Joseph Jones, with the help of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM&AW), founded our school and established the policy because he had been denied a guide dog from other schools due to the fact that he was “too old.” Jones was only 57.

Since then, GDA has graduated many students in their 60s, 70s and, yes, well into their 80s. Three recent graduates – all now in their 70s – prove every day that those who denied Jones a dog were just doggone wrong.

“Ralphie keeps me young and keeps my heart ticking.”

Man with plaid shirt and Black Lab in harnessDave Dowland graduated from GDA with his first guide dog when he was 43. Today, he is 70 and graduated just last year with Ralphie, his fourth guide dog.

“I use a guide dog because I want to keep myself healthy and in good shape,” said Dowland. “I would not like life without a guide dog at all. I can walk 5 to 10 miles a day with Ralphie and still have energy. With a cane, I can walk only a couple of miles and be stressed out.”

Dowland confessed that in class he and Ralphie were “pretty speedy.” In fact, there was a bit of good-natured competition between Dowland and one of his younger classmates.

“There was a young man in our class, about 25 years old,” Dowland said. “He thought he could pace us, but Ralphie is quite an active dog. At first, I thought he was a bit fast for me but I kept up and realized he was the perfect speed for me.”

This active team can oftentimes be spotted along the pedestrian trails by the river close to Dowland’s home – but, by no means, is this team a pair of homebodies. Since graduating just over a year ago, they have traveled to Boston, Dallas and Tulsa.

“He fits well under the seat when we travel by plane,” Dowland said. “He is very good at travel and always enjoys a new challenge.”

The team has settled into a nice routine, which includes plenty of walking and frequent outings with friends and play time at the end of the day.

“Ralphie keeps me young and keeps my heart ticking,” said Dowland. “I look forward to many years with him. If we work together until he’s 10 years old, I’ll be in my late 70s. I am very encouraged that it’s an option for me to get another dog from GDA.”

“GDA didn’t care that I was age 60 or older.”

Woman sitting in chair with two black labs, one in harness. Man standing behind her.Chris Diller’s career as a teacher was cut short due to an eye disease (macular degeneration) when she was in her mid-50s. The condition progressed rapidly and left her with very limited vision. She decided to retire but she wasn’t ready to slow down. She and her husband Bob were on an outing when they met a group who shared their love of animals and who happened to be volunteer puppy raisers for GDA.

Diller and her husband had always had a dog, but she had never considered a guide dog. After that chance meeting, she started to research GDA.

“GDA didn’t care that I was 60 or older,” Diller said. “Before I even went to class, I met a man who lives by us and, at 80 years old, he had just graduated with his second guide dog from the school. I thought to myself, this is for me!

“GDA never thinks someone is too old, as long as you are mobile enough to work your dog and take good care of your dog,” Diller said. “I found that to be true both times I was in class.”

At 62, Diller graduated with her first guide dog, Kayla.

“Being back home with Kayla was so freeing, for both me and my husband,” Diller said. “He no longer had to shuffle along with me, and I could go shopping and explore where I wanted to and then say to Kayla, ‘Go find Bob,’ and she would.”

Diller retired Kayla last year. At age 69 she returned to GDA for her second guide dog Nike.

“I love to be on the go but I don’t move fast,” Diller said. “The trainers chose dogs for me that were calm and were content walking at a slow pace. Both times, they chose the perfect dog for me.”

And she has both of those perfect dogs with her and her husband. She and Nike are continuing to build their partnership, and Kayla is enjoying her retirement as the family pet.

“Having a guide dog never crossed my mind, until I met a GDA puppy raiser.”

Woman with sunglasses and a black lab in harness.At 74 years young, Donna Bennett received her first guide dog, Havana, from GDA in October 2014.

“Having a guide dog never crossed my mind until my friend and I were in a pet store and we met a woman who was training a puppy for GDA,” Bennett said. “We talked for a bit, and the woman suggested that I think about getting a guide dog. I told her I couldn’t because I still had some vision. She explained that many guide dog users have low vision and then she offered to take me to the next GDA graduation.”

Bennett also was receptive to the idea of a guide dog because she had moved from her home in another state to a retirement community and was finding it difficult to meet people and to be her active and social self in her new surroundings.

“As a person with low vision or total blindness, people don’t talk to you when you are walking around with a cane. With Havana, everybody in my community knows who we are,” Bennett said.

As an extremely independent woman, Bennett has found even greater freedom having her guide dog Havana.

“We fly to see my son in Oregon and take the train to see my daughter in Santa Maria,” Bennett said. “I am active in my church so Havana goes to church with me and I take her up on the stage when I address the congregation.”

Another benefit for Bennett is feeling younger.

“I wasn’t as active as I had been and I was starting to feel and see age creep up on me,” Bennett said. “I had put on a few pounds and my aches and pains were more pronounced. Now, I’ve lost the extra weight, and walking and being active keeps me from getting stiff. I walk faster than I did with a cane, and my friends can’t keep up with me. In addition to the mobility and independence, my dog makes me look good and feel great.”

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