A Leader Dog once saved BJ Blahnik’s life.
“I was walking across the street, and I could hear a bus coming,” Blahnik said. “It seemed it wasn’t going to stop at the light. My dog jumped up over my shoulder and pulled me out of harm’s way.”
Blahnik and his Leader Dog Goober traveled from Wisconsin to Love Creek Elementary March 26 to tell students how Leader Dogs have transformed his life.
For nearly a century, Lions Clubs have served the blind and visually impaired through advocacy, services and programs such as Leader Dogs for the Blind. Blahnik said Delaware Lions Clubs raised funds to purchase Goober for him.
“Goober cost $40,000,” Blahnik said. “He’s my wheels, he’s how I get around - but I didn’t pay a single thing because the Lions in this room raised money along with other companies to enable me to get my dog completely free. The Lions are my heroes.”
Blahnik said he realized as a boy he had a vision problem during an overnight camping trip.
“We were sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and singing songs on a clear night and the other kids started talking about stars and constellations in the sky,” he said. “I thought, this is amazing, I didn’t know you could see the stars at night.”
Blahnik said the kids then got up and started playing tag.
“They were running around the trees and not bumping into them like I always do, and again I thought that was amazing,” he said.
Blahnik was diagnosed with a genetic vision disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, which he said has gotten worse over time. He told students he could see ceiling lights and contrasting colors on the floor, but he could not see a single student. Eight years ago, he said, he lost the ability to read.
“The toughest part was being bullied as a kid because I was different,” he said. “I got pushed around, and it hurt a lot. Bullying is not acceptable at all.”
Blahnik said his first Leader Dog was a German shepherd named Diesel.
“He changed my life,” Blahnik said. “Leader dogs saved me when I was feeling frustrated. I was able to travel the world and become normal. My disability didn’t matter; it’s OK to be a little bit different! The Lions taught me if you work for it, you can do anything you possibly want.”
Blahnik showed students his identity cane, a white pole with a red bottom, that signals he is blind. He said he can either slide or tap the cane while walking.
“But,” he said, “I like to use my Goober rather than my cane.”
Blahnik said Goober helps guide him and shows him where things are. Goober knows what stairs, elevators and escalators look like and will lead the way to them when asked. He cautioned students to never pet a service dog wearing a harness.
“When I put the harness on him, it’s like putting on a work uniform,” he said. “When the harness is off, he’s just like a regular dog at home, but we don’t play tug-of-war because it can cause aggressive behavior.”
Blahnik showed students how he communicates with Goober by putting just a little pressure on the harness to signal which direction to go.
“He always walks in front of me so I have time to react,” he said. “I’ve had Goober five years, but he’s always learning, and we must practice.”
Blahnik encouraged students to befriend children who may not look or act like them.
“If you see someone who is a little bit different than you, rather than pick on them, go over and start talking,” he said. “Get to know them, and you will probably end up making a new friend.”