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Have Guide Dog, Will Travel

San Francisco attorney Janni Lehrer-Stein knows how to work a cocktail party.

After all, she’s been engaged in national politics as a disabilities rights advocate for many years, and cocktail parties serve multiple purposes for her work, including fundraising, networking, and engaging new stakeholders to craft disability policy.

These gatherings, along with many of her other responsibilities, require Lehrer-Stein to travel frequently. And this past year, her constant travel partner and companion has been her guide dog, Shiloh, a 60-pound black lab.

“Shiloh goes everywhere with me,” said Lehrer-Stein. “He has learned to confidently navigate events with up to 1,000 people in attendance, and because of him, I often feel like the most welcome person in the room.”

Lehrer-Stein lost her vision after being diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease at 26. She used a white cane for navigation for many years, which she now believes kept people at arm’s length from her.

“With a cane, you’re actively keeping things out of your path, which drives people away,” she said. “With a guide dog helping you avoid things in your path, people are much more compassionate, and a guide dog actually becomes a great social connection to the world.”

Lehrer-Stein credits Shiloh with helping her to become more independent and mobile as well, especially in her travels and busy career. Her résumé includes two appointments by President Barack Obama to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the President. She also served as a senior disability policy advisor to the Hillary for America campaign. She currently serves as the vice chair of finance for the Democratic National Committee’s Disability Council.

With Lehrer-Stein’s busy schedule, she needed a guide dog that could keep up with the pace of her life in San Francisco and beyond. It was critical for Lehrer-Stein to be paired with a dog that had the right personality and energy level to be a successful team. Both Lehrer-Stein and Shiloh are graduates of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, which is the largest guide dog school in North America. GDB prepares highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or have low vision. All of its services are provided for free to clients.

“The most impressive thing about Guide Dogs for the Blind was their ability to personalize the training experience for my needs,” said Lehrer-Stein. “They set up an environment as a test case for congested cocktail parties with food and crowds, so I knew I was being matched with the right guide, based on my lifestyle.”

She reports that Shiloh is a morning dog who loves to play and cuddle, as well as a high-energy dog who more than keeps up with her in her hilly neighborhood in San Francisco. An average day for them might start with a yoga class, where Shiloh stays at the edge of Lehrer-Stein’s mat and has learned that he is free to lick her after he hears the last “om” of the class.

Shiloh and Lehrer-Stein have also developed a signaled response for distracting off-leash dogs when traveling the city. When Shiloh sees a dog approaching, he emphatically stops in his high-response stance so that she is aware of what’s about to happen, giving her ample time to call out to the dog’s owner.

But perhaps the most important benefit Shiloh provides to Lehrer-Stein is freedom.

“Thanks to Guide Dogs for the Blind, I have this incredible companion who keeps me safe, so I can actually focus on other aspects of who I am, rather than focusing on my lack of vision,” she said. “Being blind is not the defining characteristic of who I am; it’s simply a small part.”

For more information about GDB, visit GuideDogs.com.

Brad Hennig is a freelance writer and communications consultant whose work has been published in theHuffington Post, Fast Company, Publisher’s Weekly, CMO.com, CFO.com, the Nonprofit Times, and numerous other publications. He has written and produced two films, The Hot Flashes and Stage Mother. Hennig has a bachelor’s degree in journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in San Francisco, and confesses that he prefers dogs to people.

Above: Janni Lehrer-Stein with Shiloh, her guide dog.

Main article photo by: Courtesy Janni Lehrer-Stein