Thursday marked the one year anniversary since Alan Gunzburg welcomed “Kili” to his home in Cos Cob. Gunzburg has partial sight but is legally blind. Kili is Alan’s Fidelco guide dog.
Gunzburg had a guide dog, Fia, who was getting up in years. And while some Fidelco dogs are re-homed during their senior years, and the non-profit will help place a retired guide dog if necessary, Gunzburg kept Fia, who now works as a therapy dog at North Mianus School where children read to her.
On Thursday at Innis Arden Golf Club, both the Greenwich and Old Greenwich Lions Clubs were joined by Eliot Russman, CEO of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. Russman traveled from the non-profit’s base in the Hartford area to express his gratitude to the generous clubs in Greenwich, and give an overview of his charity.
Russman who got involved with Fidelco when his family adopted a retired Fidelco dog in 2001, said there is a waiting list for the retired dogs.
Andn while there are just 45 employees at Fidelco, there are 350 volunteers who delivered $35 million of services over the past year, according to Russman.
Fidelco breeds dogs and raises the pups at their Connecticut facility for the first 8 weeks. From there, they place puppies in homes with “puppy raisers,” who Russman said have kids, grandparents, and other animals.
“They have other dogs, cats, birds, horses, rats, skunks and ferrets,” Russman smiled. “We want the dogs exposed, to be socialized. To get out to grocery stores, to offices,” he continued, adding that in Connecticut, dogs-in-training fortunately have the same access rights in public places as service dogs.
“We’re constantly refreshing our bloodlines so we get the greatest dogs in the world,” Russman said. Currently there are 250 teams, including one who was brought by dog sled to its destination in Alaska for “in community” training.
With a fleet of 22 vehicles, Fidelco drives from dogs from Hartford to destinations east of the Mississippi. Beyond that, the charity flies each dog and trainer to its destination. Mr. Russman said that the airfares do add up, but compared to other guide dog agencies, the cost is less than maintaining an onsite dormitory for clients to stay for on-site training.
Fidelco is one of 12 accredited guide dog organizations in the US, but what sets them apart is that recipients don’t have to leave home to receive training. Rather, Fidelco volunteers will drive or even fly to the recipient’s home and deliver a young, trained black and tan German Shepherd guide dog. The charity has serviced over 1,400 clients across North America in 41 states and 5 Canadian provinces.
Russman said Fidelco is committed to the community-placement model. “We train them in their home, where they live, where they work, where they worship. If it’s a first time guide dog owner we help them set up their veterinary relationships, figure out the dog’s dietary requirements,” Russman explained, adding that Fidelco has a 100% safety rate. “There have been no fatalities because of an error.”
Among the owners of Fidelco guide dogs are several high functioning clients, and there are guide dogs in the White House, Pentagon, universities, and Dept of Justice, for example.
It takes two years of hard work and the investment of 15,000 hands-on hours for every guide dog, at a direct cost of $45,000. Fidelco provides the guide dogs free of charge to recipients. Russman said that 63% of the puppies successfully make it to guide dog status and about 22% become working dogs such as police dogs. Russman said a small percentage wind up as pets.
“We can identify by eight weeks, which ones are going to be guide dogs, which are going to be canines,” Russman said, adding that the goal is quality.
“All guide dogs can go up to an object and decide to go left or right,” Russman said, but Fidelco German Shepherds, he said, are unique in that they anticipate an obstacle from a distance of six feet and anticipates and makes decision on the fly.
The Lions Club and Fidelco enjoy an alignment of missions, and while Fidelco’s sole purpose in the world is to breed and train German Shepherd guide dogs, 90 years ago the Lions took a sacred pledge to Helen Keller to be the Knights of the Blind.
This week the local Lions Clubs presented a check to Eliot Russman, CEO of Connecticut-based Fidelco, who expressed gratitude to the Lions for all their hard work and fundraising on behalf of his non-profit organization.
Russman said there is currently a particular need for vehicles for transporting dogs to clients. Visit Fidelco’s website for information on donating, volunteering or applying, or call (860) 243-5200.