Pioneers and Pilot Dogs - Guiding the Way

Pilot Dogs

Remember the last scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" when the town came together for George Bailey, donating whatever they could to help him out of a dark time?

This past December, our Pioneers in Columbus, Ohio experienced just such a moment at their annual holiday luncheon. The final contributions for "Pilot Dog #40", an annual donation to a local service-dog training facility, were raised during the event itself as Pioneers opened their hearts and wallets in a wonderful scene stolen from the movies.

(Donations) Gone to the Dogs

Since the 1960s, the Columbus chapter has worked with the Pilot Dogs, Inc., which trains and provides service dogs to legally-blind individuals. Over the years, Pioneers has donated the funds for many pilot dog "scholarships".

For qualified individuals, a "scholarship" includes round-trip transportation to Columbus, a four-week training course at the Pilot Dog facility (including room and board), and, of course, the gift of the highly-trained service dog. Upon graduation, each student leaves Columbus with a new best friend, increased independence and mobility, and a much better quality of life. The students have no out-of-pocket expenses during their stay, so they can spend the entire time bonding with their dogs and working with the trainers.

The Pilot Dogs program graduates an average of 150 students and dogs each year. With the current cost of a dog scholarship hovering around $10,000, the Columbus Pioneers seek to donate at least one "dog" every December.

Straight Out of the Movies

In 2017, Pioneers were seemingly on track to provide "Pilot Dog #40", or the $10,000 donation, to the organization. But after crunching the numbers, the treasurer, Keith Eaton, had to share devastating news at the chapter's holiday luncheon in December. He could not approve the purchase of the annual scholarship - the chapter was $740 short!

What happened next, according to Keith, was a holiday miracle scripted straight out of Hollywood.

"As I returned to my seat, people started giving me money in cash and checks! I collected over $1,000 in less than 10 minutes -- exceeding our goal of $10,000 in donations. I was able to thank all in attendance for their generosity. To me, December 21 will always remind me of the caring and generosity of our Pioneer family and our commitment to those in need."

From Puppy to Pilot Dog

So where does the $10,000 scholarship from Pioneers go? Here is a timeline of how a puppy grows up to be a pilot dog and helps its new owner navigate a brighter world.

  • Foster Home: A puppy (often a golden retriever, Labrador retriever, or German Shepard) is raised in a foster home for one year. Obedience training and socialization with other animals and people is a priority.
  • Formal Training: The professional dog trainers at Pilot Dogs take charge for the next five months as the puppies mature into service dogs. Dogs and trainers hit the streets of Columbus to learn how to navigate buses, revolving doors, escalators, elevators, and many other conditions that the dogs will have to "see" for their new owners.
  • Team Training: Students arrive for the month-long training program and are paired with their new best friends. After initial bonding time, training starts with short walks and progresses to more challenging obstacles for the teams to navigate. The students and dogs "graduate" when they can navigate bus rides, cross busy streets, and shop in a large department stores.

The Columbus chapter epitomizes what Pioneers is all about - making an impact in their community and brightening the lives of many through their relationship with the Pilot Dogs organization. Keith noted that a highlight of every September is the annual "Pilot Dog Luncheon" where a Pilot Dog graduate comes to share their story of newfound confidence and independence with those who helped make it possible. Can't wait to hear the story of Pilot Dog #40!