NASA Langley Welcomes a New Leader… Dog
Evan Horowitz is about to take his puppy for a walk.
There's the harness to deal with first, of course. Horowitz also grabs a pair of Doggles — impact-resistant dog goggles — and places a protective bootie on each of the puppy's four paws. He's serious about safety.
"She's going to walk kind of funny," he says, "but she'll eventually get used to them."
He's right: she does. There's some gnawing involved, to be sure. And when the puppy's bootie-clad paws leave the carpeted office floor and hit the slick linoleum hallway, her legs splay out, prompting Horowitz to give the leash a gentle tug.
"Reminds me of Bambi on the ice," he says, chuckling.
But by the time they've reached their destination, the main hangar at NASA's Langley Research Center, the 12-week-old golden retriever puppy, Dee-O-Gee, is looking relatively comfortable in her new shoes, and Horowitz, a mechanical engineer in the Research Services Directorate, is smiling.
Horowitz and Dee-O-Gee are in the hangar to have their picture taken for a feature article — this feature article, actually. And Horowitz is happy not only because Dee-O-Gee is quickly adapting to the booties, but also because he'll soon have a new photo to add to his scrapbook and Dee-O-Gee's quarterly report.
That's right: quarterly report.
Dee-O-Gee is a working dog. Horowitz keeps track of her progress because he's raising her for Leader Dogs for the Blind, a guide dog training school based in Rochester Hills, Mich. He picked up Dee-O-Gee in Rochester Hills on Jan. 4. Assuming all goes well, they'll spend about a year together, during which Dee-O-Gee will be Horowitz's constant companion.
"Food shopping," he says, "the barber, the doctor's, the hardware store, restaurants. Yeah, pretty much anywhere I go, she goes."
By taking Dee-O-Gee everywhere with him, and by giving her good obedience training, Horowitz hopes to raise a dog that responds well to commands and controls its impulses — critical traits for a Leader Dog.
Of course, it's often the humans who require the most training.
Dee-O-Gee wears a blue bandana that indicates when she's working. During that time, she's not supposed to interact with anyone — and no one other than Horowitz is supposed to interact with her. But people don't always realize that.
"That's the big thing," Horowitz says. "I have to tell people, 'Please, don't distract her, she's working.' "
If they're nice about it, though, and Horowitz isn't in a hurry, he'll take the bandana off and let Dee-O-Gee play. It's actually a good teaching tool.
"She can't learn the difference between work and play unless she has both work and play," he says.
Dee-O-Gee already seems to be grasping the work-play concept pretty well, even if the people around her have a slightly harder time with it. Horowitz is used to that, though. Dee-O-Gee is the fourth Leader Dog he's raised since he's been at NASA Langley.
He first got the idea to raise Leader Dogs when he was still a kid. A made-for-TV Disney movie called "Atta Girl, Kelly" sparked his imagination. It told the story of a young boy who raises a guide dog for a 4-H project.
To Horowitz, that seemed like the perfect kind of charity. Raising a Leader Dog allows him to make a positive difference in someone's life in a way that doesn't impose.
"I'm not forcing anything on anybody. I'm not making any judgments about anybody," he says. "What I am doing, though, is I'm enabling a person."
There are personal benefits, too.
A self-described "hermit," Horowitz says raising Leader Dogs gets him out of his bubble and makes him more sociable.
"It forces me to interface with people because she draws a lot of attention," he says, "which was not my original intent, but it seems to have come about anyway."
In addition to that, like many dog owners, Horowitz views the Leader Dogs he raises as family. The companionship they provide is invaluable to him, which of course makes it difficult to see the dogs go after their year together is up.
"It's a hurt," he says. "It's a big hurt. But it's a good hurt."
In the gaps between Leader Dogs, Horowitz has his 16-year-old cat, Emily Victoria Sylvia Horowitz — Emmie for short — to keep him company.
And there's always the next Leader Dog. Horowitz plans to keep raising them for as long as he can. In fact, he's working his way through the alphabet. His first three Leader Dogs were named Aries, Belle and Chloe. He's already picked out names for the next three — Echo, Feline and Godiva.
"Once I get settled on something," he says, "I just stick with it."
By: Joe Atkinson
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman