Regional news: Guide dog Silver offers independence to longtime Hayden resident | VailDaily.com
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Regional news: Guide dog Silver offers independence to longtime Hayden resident

John F. Russell
Steamboat Today
Longtime Hayden resident Donna Bertram has found a new friend in her guide dog, Silver.
John F. Russell | Steamboat Today |

HAYDEN — You can see he’s still a puppy by the look his eyes. But at 18 months, Silver’s responsibilities go well beyond chasing balls, begging for table scraps or barking at the cat.

“Are you done saying, ‘Hi’?” Donna Bertram asks the jet-black Labrador retriever, who now provides a sense of independence that had slipped away in recent years, along with her eyesight. Since last month, Bertram has been bonding with the dog that now allows her to venture out safely into the Hayden streets she grew up on.

Bertram has been legally blind since she was 15 and functionally blind the past 15 years. In that time, she has come to know the streets, the curbs, the paths that take her from her home to the places she wants to go.

But the past several years, her family has started to worry that her failing vision might leave her stranded or lost. That’s where Silver, raised by the staff at KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc., comes in. KSDS is located in the small town of Washington, Kansas, and has been in business more than 27 years.

“The organization started as a 4-H project raising dogs,” said Marcia Funke, a donor manager for KSDS. From there, it grew into a nonprofit that has paired 536 dogs with people dealing with visual or physical disabilities. KSDS also trains and provides facility dogs, which are teamed with professionals who use the dogs in schools or social work.

“We don’t charge anything,” Funke said. “The dogs are provided though grants, donations and that sort of thing. We have some corporate support, as well.”

For Berthram, the dog lying at her feet on the floor is not only a great companion, but also a source of independence she wasn’t ready to give up.

“I’ve been with Silver for a little more than a month,” she said. “I went to Kansas to train with him for two weeks. He already knew what he was doing, but I had to learn. We’ve been home about three weeks.”

Debbie Tegethoff, a guide dog trainer for KSDS, said working with Berthram was a pleasure, and she said Silver will provide provide a priceless sense of independence for the Hayden resident.

“I could see the light bulb go inside Donna’s head when they came together,” Tegethoff said. “Now, she can go places by herself. Before Silver, her family was afraid to let her go … he’s just going to give her so much independence and confidence.”

Walking is Bertham’s main means of transportation, but she hasn’t let her limited vision stop her from getting out of the house. When her children were in pre-school and kindergarten, she walked them to-and-from school. She did the same with her grandchildren. She also walks to town to take part in community organizations or to visit her mother in the Haven Assisted Living Facility.

But as her sight has deteriorated, her family’s concern has grown.

“My family didn’t want me out walking alone with just Slim (the nickname she has given her walking stick),” Berthram said. “So I lost a lot of my independence. Having a partner in a guide dog is going to make me more independent. I can go to the library and meet with my book club, and I can go other places like that by myself.”

Berthram’s husband, Tim, is also happy Silver has joined the family.

“He does a good job,” Tim Berthram said of Silver. “Now we don’t have to worry about her wandering off into a ditch somewhere. She has Silver, and he will keep that from happening.”

Berthram is active in the community, working with Totally Kids, which provides recreational programs for children, including an after-school program, and summer day camp. Her other passion is working with Northwest Colorado Center for Independence, which assists individuals with disabilities and their families in removing barriers that limit their access to an independent and fulfilling life. In fact, it was her connections with that organization that fueled her desire to get a guide dog.

“We discovered that there are at least 17 centers in the country that provide assistance and guide dogs,” Berthram said.

Many of those programs charge to provide the dogs, but Berthram discovered KSDS and was happy to learn the group works based on grants and donations. Money was not a barrier in her ability to get a dog.

“I liked KSDS, because it was a small rural community (1,600 people), like Hayden,” she said. “I knew that I would be training on gravel dirt paths, streets without curbs. I wanted to learn in my environment.”

She said the application process was lengthy. She had to fill out an eight- to 10-page application, provide documentation that proved she had a disability and answer plenty of other questions. But she said she doesn’t want the process to deter others from following her path. In the end, she feels it was worth the effort, and she said the staff at NWCCI are willing to lend a helping had to anyone who wants a service dog.

She recalled her feelings when she traveled to Kansas to meet Silver for the first time.

“I was great, because it was the first time I have ever traveled — completely, independently — on my own,” she said. “I did something on my own, and that was great.”

It’s something she expects to do continue, now that Silver is part of the family.

That is the outcome that keeps Tegethoff excited about her organization’s work to breed, train and provide service dogs to people like Donna.

“You lose a little part of your heart every time a dog graduates,” Tegethoff said. “But then, you realize the independence a dog can give to each individual, and then, you are ready to start with the next group.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@steamboattoday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.


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