David Steinmetz’s relationship with his guide dog, Joe, is so essential it’s hard to describe.
"I can walk more freely, and he gives me a lot more confidence than a cane did, " says Steinmetz.
The 39-year-old Chandler resident, blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, counts on the friendly, 3-year-old yellow Labrador to connect him to work, home and all points in between.
"It goes beyond anticipating each other’s moves," he says. "I follow him. It’s pretty much pure trust."
Steinmetz and Joe will be one of the six-legged teams stepping out Saturday as Arizona Hot Paws Guide Dog Club hosts its second Paws for Freedom walkathon. Raffles, snacks and pet photography booths will dot the trail as local canines lead blind and sighted masters on a walk to benefit Guide Dogs of the Desert International.
"Guide dogs truly are eyes for the blind," says the group’s Cynthia Woods. "They are trained to judge traffic, ride escalators. You can go into a building, tell your dog, ‘Find elevator,’ and they do it."
Their talents come from good breeding, careful collaboration and significant funding. The average guide dog works for between six and eight years and costs about $40,000 to raise and train. Volunteer families raise the puppies — usually golden retrievers, Labradors or standard poodles — teaching basic obedience skills for the first 18 months.
"Then the dogs are returned to us," Woods says. Those who pass a second screening receive six months of training with a licensed instructor. At the same time, recipients are assessed for specifics on their needs and environment. Dogs and owners are matched for temperament and lifestyle compatibility, and the new owner arrives to meet his or her dog and finish instruction.
"When I got him, it was kind of a magical thing," Steinmetz says. "You imagine all the things you’ve been missing that you suddenly are able to do."
Paws for Freedom welcomes walk-up walkers with well-behaved dogs on a leash. The $25 registration fee includes a T-shirt and goes to support GDDI.
Paws for Freedom
What: Walkathon to raise money for
Guide Dogs of the Desert International
When: Registration begins 8 a.m. Saturday
Where: Margaret T. Hance Park, 67 W. Culver St., Phoenix
Cost: Free to watch, $25 to walk
Information: (602) 339-0116 or www.guidedogsofthedesert.org