She can't see him with her eyes, but Ruth Peeples knows her guide dog, Smokey, is beautiful.
"He's so pretty. You can just touch him and know he's so sweet," said Peeples, 39, of Parkville, Baltimore County.
But this black Labrador retriever survives on more than looks. He's smart, loyal, watchful and he gets Peeples safely to where she wants to go, whether it's to the dentist, the bank or a friend's house.
"I can say 'Find Peggy's house,' and he'll find it," said Peeples,who's been blind for about 10 years. Smokey helps Peeples find bus stops, and in the past two weeks, Peeples has noticed that whenever the dog hears a bus, he stops to let her know, just in case she wants one.
At a dinner last night at Friendly Farms Restaurant in Westminster, Carroll County Lions Club members and their guests learned moreabout the Leader Dog Program they raise money for. The service organization helps people with vision and hearing impairments.
Guest speaker Pauline Ulrey of Indianapolis described how her leader dog, Keller, gives her the independence she needs to continue her career as a psychiatric social worker and to live as independent a life as possible.
Keller, a German shepherd, leads Ulrey on the mile-long walkfrom her mobile home to the bus stop, past a narrow part of the paththat goes over a culvert. Ulrey said she wouldn't walk it with just a cane.
Blind for most of her 53 years, Ulrey has spoken all over the country about the Lions International Leader Dog School in Rochester, Mich.
The 52-year-old school's $3 million operating budget issupported by Lions Clubs, so the dogs are given free to blind people.
Peeples said her dog cost her nothing, thanks to the Overlea Lions Club that paid her airfare to Rochester. Carroll County Lions Clubs will do the same for people in their communities, said James H. Glazier, 56, of Mount Airy. Glazier is regional chairman of the 16 Lions Clubs and three Lioness Clubs in the county.
It costs the school about $9,000 to train each dog for six months before meeting the owner, and then to train the owners to work with the dogs. Each year the school graduates more than 300 pairs of owners and dogs. Last year,28 Maryland residents got dogs, although the school has no records of Carroll County alumni.
Ulrey travels with Keller, who responds to certain command words to find a pay phone, soda machine, door or other object. "Counter" means find the hotel desk or department store cash register.
"Sausage" means find a hot dog vendor cart during lunch hour downtown.
"And if there's a line, she gets behind the last person and we wait there," Ulrey said. "Their intelligence is amazing."
Keller is Ulrey's fourth dog. Because guide dog work is so intense, they are "retired" after about five years of serving a blind person and then are adopted as pets.
Ulrey said a blind person accepting a guide dog also has to accept the responsibility of feeding, grooming, walking and loving the animal. The school carefully interviews applicants to make sure they know what they're taking on, she said.
Peeples agreed and said a few blind people in every class go home without dogs because either they or the school decide they aren't suited to having one.
"The dogs are a big responsibility," Peeples said. "But they can be loving companions. You've got to really want this dog in your life.
"Any visually impaired person who is interested in having a guide dog, I would heartily suggest they check into it."
Peeples has had vision problems most of her life. She got Smokey two years ago. Before that, she used a cane, but never felt safe taking a trip across the city or even crossing a busy street.
"I didn't know how a leader dog would act with small children," said Peeples, a mother of three said.