Service dog ‘opens up world’ for blind resident

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By Rachel Christian

Once Lois Stevens, 72, slid the special harness over Karma’s head, the well-trained service dog knew it was time to work.

“See how her whole demeanor changes?” Stevens said as she gently buckled the straps around the animal’s neck. “She knows play time is over.”

Karma is the latest addition to the Stevens’ Mount Vernon home, and a much appreciated one at that. The Labrador-Golden Retriever mix helps guide its new owner anywhere and everywhere – the grocery store, restaurants and even around the downtown streets of Evansville. Stevens uses a series of simple commands to instruct the dog where to go, and then Karma takes the lead.

“This girl has really opened up the world for me,” Stevens said as the two navigate their way to the kitchen.

In 2007, Stevens lost vision in her right eye due to an unusual, rapid infection. The eye was removed and a prosthetic was put in its place a year later. Not long after, macular degeneration and glaucoma began affecting Lois’ left eye. The vision loss in her left and right eye were unrelated.

“My doctor told me it wasn’t a matter of if I would lose my vision, it was a matter of when,” Stevens said.

The time finally came last year. Now, when Stevens looks at the world, she has triple vision and sees mostly shadows with little definition.

Coping with her loss of sight has been an ongoing learning process for Lois and David, her husband of 52 years. But from the beginning, the retired USI employee has fought to maintain her independence.

“When my daughter was three years old, she had a phrase that I’ve adopted,” Lois said. “She used to say, ‘Me do self’ and that kind of sums it up. I was determined not to let it put me in a corner and stop me from living.”

Stevens began to undergo mobility training through the Evansville Association for the Blind after her surgery in 2008. She learned how to use a white cane and accessibility devices that made it easier to navigate her surroundings.  The Stevens even trained their family dog to assist her and look both ways for Lois when the two walked through the neighborhood.

The Stevens beloved family pet eventually passed away from cancer, and following a surgery last summer, Lois and David realized she needed additional assistance.

They learned about an organization called Leader Dogs for the Blind from a couple of Lions Club members who attend their church.

The application process was detailed and lengthy, requiring among other things, medical documentation and a 15-minute video of Lois navigating city streets and her home with her cane. The application process is strenuous because highly trained service animals cost upwards of $37,000, and through Leader Dogs, the canines are provided at no cost to approved applicants.

The organization warned Stevens that it could take six months to two years before her application was approved. But less than three months after sending the paperwork in, Lois learned she had been accepted into the program.

“They called in December and asked if I could come up to Michigan to begin training in January,” Lois said. “We told them we would be there.”

The bond formed between Lois and her new seeing-sidekick was almost instant. While in Michigan, Stevens learned how to instruct and interact with Karma alongside blind individuals from around the globe. They walked together for miles, navigating city streets and country roads without sidewalks. When they returned home, Lois walked through the downtown streets of Evansville blindfolded with Karma to see if the training had been a success.

“I wasn’t allowed to follow behind or help her in any way, which was difficult for me,” said David, who served as a United Methodist minister for many years. “But the two of them did great.”

Karma has been with her new family for a month now, and Lois, David and their other pet, Chewy, couldn’t be happier. Chewy, an Australian Shepard mix, is a rescue dog who was badly abused before the Stevens’ adopted him. The dog was hesitant, shy and nervous around strangers and the couple wasn’t sure how he would react to the young guide dog.
It turned out Karma helped her canine pal almost as much as her owner.

“The two of them play together all the time, where before, he was scared to do much of anything,” Lois said.

A time filled with such difficult transitions is usually marked by fear, but Karma is helping Lois achieve a more positive outlook.

After a decade of difficulties, it appears that Karma is finally by her side.