Marianna Allgauer, a longtime supporter of Guide Dogs of the Desert, recently gave $20,000 to the non-profit to sponsor two dogs in training to become service dogs for the blind and visually impaired.
The recent recession hit the Palm Springs-based facility hard, so Allgauer upped her ante and is hoping others will decide to make donations, too. “There isn’t anything I do that gives me more satisfaction than knowing I’m going to make a difference in someone else’s life,” she said.
The La Jollan sponsors a dog every year with a grant from the Harry Allgauer Foundation, started by her late husband.
“We sponsored our first dog in 2006 or ’07, and it was such a joy that I’ve been very committed ever since,” she said.
Though she donates to other organizations, as well, Allgauer said her main focus is Guide Dogs of the Desert. “I totally believe in what they do and I think it is such a worthwhile cause,” she said. “It plays such as important role; a life-altering role in a very positive way for people who have impaired vision.”
Kim Laidlaw, executive director of Guide Dogs of the Desert, said donations help fund the extensive training that selected dogs must go through to become service animals for the blind. She said the dogs are provided at no cost to the applicant. “Marianna allows our organization to continue going forward,” Laidlaw said. “Without those donations, we wouldn’t be here.” Guide Dogs of the Desert does not receive state nor federal funding.
To become the “eyes” for their human, selected puppies are continuously exposed to a variety of stimuli so that nothing startles them and they are able to ignore distractions. The trainers take the pups everywhere they go — the doctor’s office, church, work and school.
“Guide dogs are taught to go from point A to point B and either stop at objects that are in their way or walk around them,” Laidlaw explained. For example, if a dog is walking and there is a curb or a stair, the dog stops and the person realizes there is a change he or she needs to investigate.
“The dogs are taught to avoid cars at all costs, though a blind person must still listen for the flow of traffic to determine if it’s safe to cross. If an owner tells the dog to go forward, the dog will obey, unless it would put them in harm’s way. If there was a car coming, the dog is not going to go. We call that intelligent disobedience,” Laidlaw said.
To train the dogs to avoid cars, trainers use a test car that emits sound, along with a more silent Prius. After months of training, the dog is paired with an applicant, and they work together for a month at the Palm Springs facility to get used to each other.
“Few people would have the focus and discipline these dogs have,” Allgauer joked.
Approximately 70 percent of the dogs that Guide Dogs of the Desert trains go on to be eyes for the blind. Those that don’t, go on to work with autistic children, veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, search and rescue teams, and other groups who need their help. Laidlaw said they are one of two training facilities that breed allergen-free poodles. “There are a lot of people out there who are legally blind and would like to get a guide dog and haven’t been able to until the poodles (came),” she said.
Allgauer recently got to meet Nike, one of the dogs she sponsored, for his birthday at the La Valencia Hotel. Admittedly enamored with Nike, Allgauer said she loves all dogs, especially when they learn to be of service.
“I think all dogs are amazing, but the dogs that are able to go to the next level are the truly exceptional ones,” she said.
Guide Dogs of the Desert
■ Established: 1972
■ Mission: To improve the lives of the blind by creating opportunities for life-changing independence, companionship and increased safety, and by conducting community outreach and education programs.
■ Number of dogs trained so far: 1,300
■ Breed best-suited to serve: Labrador Retriever, though breeds depend on client’s needs
■ Cost for training: $35,000 from birth to retirement
■ Best Way to donate:
■ Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1692, Palm Springs, CA 92263
■ Phone: (760) 329-6257