September is National Guide Dog Month in the U.S. This celebration of guide dogs for the blind was created by actor, Natural Balance Pet Foods founder and ginormous animal lover, Dick Van Patten, in 2008. I interviewed Rick Rockhill, to find out how this came about. Some of you may be familiar with Rick as the super cool @rickrockhill on Twitter. You may have actually met him at BarkWorld or SuperZoo– he gets around, this guy. You might also know one of his standard poodles, a very recent Twitter convert, who goes by @SheldonGryffin.
How National Guide Dog Month Began
Dick Van Patten saw a person walking with a guide dog one day. Curious about their fascinating relationship, and after speaking with the dog’s owner, he visited Guide Dogs of the Desert in Palm Springs, California, where the dog had been trained. He toured the facility, then was blindfolded and experienced first hand what it is like to have to put your trust completely in an animal, as he was guided by a guide dog. At first, he was nervous and concerned, as we all might be, wondering if the dog really knew what he was doing; however, he was soon utterly amazed that the dog was so smart. There is a tremendous bond and a whole cycle of commitment and sacrifice made by the families that raise the puppies for the first eighteen months then give them to their new blind owner, the trainers at the school who train the dogs and their blind partners to work together, the dogs who embrace the responsibility of keeping their charges out of harm’s way, and the blind guide dog users, who love their dogs and often keep and care for them even when the dogs themselves are aged and can no longer perform their jobs. In that case, the blind person will often get another guide dog and keep their former guide dog as a pet, sometimes he’ll be returned to the family that raised him as a puppy or the school will find a family to adopt him in his golden years. In any case, the dogs are never forgotten or neglected. They always remain within the circle in which they’re born. This touched Dick in such a profound way that he wanted to be involved somehow in supporting such a wonderful program.
Free To A Blind Human
When he found out the school gave these pawesome guide dogs away free to blind humans who needed them, and relied solely on private donations with no government funding, he called the PetCo Foundation, which whom he’d always had a great relationship. Rick Rockhill happened to be a PetCo Director and Merchandise Manager at the time. (Rick worked for PetCo for thirteen years prior to joining Dick Van Patten at Natural Balance Pet Foods in 2010.)
Dick suggested that they partner to raise money for The Guide Dogs of the Desert, at the same time raising awareness to strengthen and reinforce the human/animal bond. In their first year, in Southern California PetCo stores only, they began asking PetCo customers to ’round up’ their purchases and donate their spare change to the Guide Dogs of the Desert. PetCo’s customers were very receptive and supportive, so when Dick went back to the PetCo Foundation, suggesting they do something similar on a national scale to benefit all the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) accredited non-profit guide dog schools in the U.S. (there are ten, at present), they were happy to participate. He went a step further and started calling U.S. governors, and in 2009, governors across the country made proclamations establishing “National Guide Dog Month” to help fund these great schools and raise awareness of how cool these dogs are, as well as to spread the word to blind, and nearly blind humans who may not know that they are able to get a guide dog for free! They’ve raised about two million dollars so far and hope to raise a million dollars this year.
Dick Van Patton also uses his access to celebrities, as an actor, to get media coverage for National Guide Dog Month. Paula Abdul was their celebrity spokeslady in 2009. In 2010, it was Nicollette Sheridan from “Desperate Housewives,” and Omar Miller and Eva LaRue from “CSI: Miami” are this year’s spokeshumans.
Omar and Eva (pictured at the top of this page) recently attended a graduation ceremony at the San Rafael, California, Guide Dogs for the Blind school where they presented the inaugural National Guide Dog Change A Life Award to Dr. Ceclia von Beroldingen. She is an actual CSI crime lab scientist who works for the California Department of Justice at the Criminalistics Forensics Institute. Twenty years ago, surgery for a brain tumor left her blind, but with the help of her guide dogs (she’s on her second one now) she’s been able to continue her career and remain independent, doing in real life what Omar Miller and Eva LaRue do on TV! You can watch a video of Omar Miller and Dr. von Beroldingen on Fox News here.
Want To Pawticipate, Right Now?
You can make a tax deductible donation to Petco.com/guidedogs during September, National Guide Dog Month. If you make a donation of $20 or more, you’ll get this cute stuffed guide dog mailed to you (while supplies last).
I wish I could get Mom a guide dog just to keep her from bumping into things so much – but she’s not blind, just a little clumsy. I don’t suppose they have dogs for that?
Images used with permission of Rick Rockhill and Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc.